Kennedy Challenger in Crunch

Tuesday, May 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON (AP) — For the first time in nearly four decades in offices, Sen. Edward Kennedy could find himself without a Republican opponent in November.

GOP hopeful Jack E. Robinson had until 5 p.m. Tuesday to turn in 10,000 signatures needed to get his name on the ballot. As of mid-afternoon, he had submitted only about 4,300.

This could be the first time the Republican Party has failed to field a candidate in a Senate race in Massachusetts since senators were first elected by popular vote in 1916.

Robinson — a young black Republican and former Eastern Airlines executive now running a cellular phone business — is also struggling to regain the backing of his party's leaders, including Gov. Paul Cellucci.

Cellucci and other top state Republicans withdrew their endorsements in March after the 39-year-old political neophyte released a detailed, and damaging, 11-page personal history. In it, Robinson outlined a drunken driving arrest — he was eventually cleared — and a relationship with a girlfriend who took out a restraining order against him.

``I still think there's some pretty big questions he's left unanswered,'' Cellucci said this week.

Robinson vowed to fight on without the help of the party.

``My own PR guy asked me, `Are you still in the race?''' Robinson said last month. ``I said, `Yes, why wouldn't I be?' I don't believe it's an impossible task.''

Since then, Robinson has kept a low profile. He did not return calls in recent days.

Despite his popularity among Massachusetts voters, Kennedy has faced a Republican foe in every campaign since he was first elected to the Senate seat that had been held by his brother John F. Kennedy. Each time — in 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988 and 1994 — Kennedy fended off those challenges.

Kennedy faced his toughest re-election battle in 1994, against wealthy Republican businessman Mitt Romney. Early polls showed the two in a virtual tie, but Kennedy ended up winning, 58 percent to 41 percent.

A Kennedy aide declined comment on Robinson's challenge Tuesday.

Even without Robinson, Kennedy may not be alone on the November ballot. Carla Howell, a candidate for the Libertarian Party, and Philip Lawler, a candidate for the Constitution Party, are running.

Federal Election Commission reports for the period between January and March show Kennedy has more than $3.7 million on hand. Robinson has so far lent his campaign $39,000 and spent all but $600.

An earlier GOP challenger, Plymouth County District Attorney Michael Sullivan, bowed out of the race, citing satisfaction with his current job and his desire to spend time with his four school-age children.