Kennedy raises $3.6m in most aggressive fund-raising drive

By Frank Phillips, Globe Staff, 12/17/99

etermined not to be caught off-guard by an opponent again, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy has amassed $3.6 million in a fund-raising drive that tops any of his past off-year efforts.

As he closes out the year and eyes the 2000 election, Kennedy's political war chest is 50 percent larger than six years ago, when he headed into the fight of his life against Republican Mitt Romney, a self-made millionaire who was prepared to spend much of his fortune to unseat him.

Kennedy has raised about $9 million since 1995, two-thirds of it from out of state, despite the lack of serious opposition as he seeks another six-year term.

The fund-raising is a key part of a strategy designed to clear a smooth path to reelection without the trauma of 1994.

The 67-year old senator has also reached out as never before to political activists, reinvigorating and expanding his field organization. In 1998, he was the only major Democrat to play a high-profile role in Scott Harshbarger's failed gubernatorial campaign.

At a meeting with Globe editors yesterday, Kennedy said he wanted to stockpile donations before the election year so he would not be burdened with soliciting donations during the campaign.

But he also acknowledged that he did not want to face the upheaval of six years ago when Romney caught him flat-footed and low on cash. He said he is now prepared to meet a late challenge from a wealthy candidate.

''It is very easy to come on in and on television and make it a highly contested campaign,'' Kennedy said. ''I would much rather spend the time now raising the funds.''

Kennedy's collections have been boosted in part by his changing position on the controversial issue of political action committee funds. In 1997, Kennedy, after years of refusing PAC funds, began taking them, and quickly raised over $900,000 from the special interest groups.

In recent years the PAC donations made up about 15 percent of his total receipts. Kennedy yesterday justified his shift in position, saying it makes it easier to raise money, and therefore he can devote more time to his Senate and constituent duties. PACs can give up to $10,000, while individuals are limited to $2,000 per election cycle.

''The most effective time I have had in the Senate is in the years between raising money,'' Kennedy said. Citing his 38 years in the Senate chamber, he said:''That's where I want to spend my time.''

Some of those contributions to his committee, many from the special interests that lobby Congress, went into Kennedy's own pocket when his political committee repaid him the $1.5 million he had loaned it in the final days of the 1994 campaign.

What is driving Kennedy, say state Democratic sources, is the fright he experienced in 1994, when Romney ran even in the polls against him a month before the election.

That near disaster - Kennedy eventually pulled ahead and won with a confortable margin - left the senator with a new campaign mantra: never again.

''Nobody's ever going to sneak up on him like that again,'' said one leading Massachusetts Democrat.

The state Republican Party hopes Plymouth District Attorney Michael Sullivan will mount a credible challenge to Kennedy.

But Sullivan, whose only electoral experience includes races for state representative and district attorney, is virtually unknown to voters outside of the South Shore.

Sullivan says he is ''definitely leaning'' toward running, but admits he would be the clear underdog.

''We are just in the early stages, trying to identify whether there's an ability to raise enough money to put on a statewide campaign,'' Sullivan said.

Sullivan said he would set a target of at least $3 million.