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Race for Tip O'Neill's seat is wide open

In the Massachusetts political arena, when there's one less hat in the ring, there may soon be a lot more. While it's uncertain how well young Edward M. Kennedy Jr. might have done had he sought the congressional seat being vacated at term's end by US House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., his decision not to run seems likely to broaden rather than shrink the field of candidates.

Several could-be contenders for the Democratic nomination for the choice seat have surfaced since the son of US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy unexpectedly declared his noncandidacy.

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Former US Rep. James M. Shannon, for example, is considering a reach for the O'Neill seat, although the congressional district involved is the Eighth and not the Fifth, which he represented in Washington for six years and where he now lives. Under the federal Constitution there is no residency requirement for a member of the United States House of Representatives, as long as he or she is an inhabitant of the state.

Mr. Shannon, who did not seek reelection to the House in 1984 in favor of what proved to be an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for US Senate, has made no secret of his desire to hold public office again. His decision on whether he will try for the O'Neill seat, or something else, is expected soon.

Others known to be eyeing the coming congressional opening with new or renewed interest include former state Rep. Melvin H. King of Boston, Somerville Mayor Eugene C. Brune, and newly elected Cambridge Mayor Francis H. Duehay.

Although nobody has formally announced, several Eighth District Democrats have been moving about testing the political waters, often with considerable intensity. They include state Sen. George Bachrach of Watertown; state Reps. William J. Galvin, Thomas H. Gallagher, and Thomas Vallely, all of Boston; and lawyers Vincent J. McCarthy of Boston and James Roosevelt Jr. of Cambridge.

The latter is the grandson of Franklin D. Roosevelt and son of a former California congressman. Young Roosevelt, whose name may be better known than most of the potential aspirants for the O'Neill seat, is a liberal. So, too, are many of the others, although to varying degrees.

No other congressional district in Massachusetts, and perhaps in the nation, is more heavily liberal than the Eighth. Now embracing all of Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, Waltham, and Watertown, plus six of Boston's 22 wards (East Boston, Charlestown, Allston-Brighton, South Fenway, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill sections), it also is overwhelmingly Democratic in voter registration.

This, coupled with his incumbency and increasing power in Congress, has hardly been a handicap to Mr. O'Neill's longevity on Capitol Hill. Were he to change his mind and run, it is questionable if any of his fellow-Democrats would attempt such a challenge.

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While its boundaries have spread outward, especially to the north and west, today's Eighth District includes the area that first elected O'Neill to Congress 33 years ago. It is also largely the same territory from which former President John F. Kennedy launched his political career in 1946 and from which he served three two-year terms in the US House before moving up to the Senate in 1953.

His uncle's identification with the district almost surely helped spark Ted Kennedy Jr.'s serious consideration of a run.

Whether his father was enthusiastic about the prospects of the younger Kennedy's candidacy may never be known. Outwardly, the senator neither encouraged nor discouraged his son.

Because of the affection that state Democratic activists generally have for the senator and the Kennedy family, it might have been awkward for some of those interested in competing for the O'Neill seat to campaign against Ted Jr.

But the latter's candidacy would have focused considerable national news-media attention on next year's Eighth District Democratic primary. It might also have attracted a lot of campaign money to the younger Kennedy and perhaps to some of his opponents. The major challenge facing a Ted Jr. candidacy would be convincing many voters that he is not too young to be their congressman.

And anything less than a victory might be viewed by many as a setback for the senator at a time when he may be readying for a try for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.

With the younger Kennedy not running, the Eighth District campaign, which might have been dominated more by personalities than substance, can now be more issue-oriented.

If Mr. Shannon runs, he certainly will be a formidible candidate, even though he would initially be an outsider with family and political roots in Lawrence, some 25 miles to the north.

The idea of someone running for a congressional seat in a district other than where he lives is hardly new. But almost invariably, especially if elected, the candidate moves into the district he seeks to represent.

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