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Wanted: someone willing to run against the Kennedy express

THERE may be no such thing as a lost political cause, even in the increasingly one-party state of Massachusetts. But the prospect of unseating Edward Kennedy may come close to one. No Democrat is about to challenge the veteran United States senator for renomination. Though there's little doubt a Republican will challenge Senator Kennedy, party leaders, including chairman Raymond Shamie, are still shopping for one.

Most experienced Republicans have long since let it be known they are not interested. Instead, several are setting their sights on 1990, when the governorship and the US Senate seat of first-term Democrat John Kerry will be at stake.

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For a while, some GOP strategists had hoped that former Rep. Margaret Heckler, now America's ambassador to Ireland, would agree to come home and run. But she has let it be known that she is content where she is.

Mr. Shamie is understood to be courting Avi Nelson, the conservative former newspaper columnist and veteran radio talk-show host, now editorial director at Boston's WEEI.

If Mr. Nelson says ``yes,'' it will be his second statewide campaign. In 1978, he unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Edward Brooke, a liberal Republican, for the nomination. Mr. Brooke later lost his third-term bid to Democrat Paul Tsongas.

Shamie, a conservative Walpole industrialist who was the GOP nominee for US Senate in 1982 and '84, might be persuaded to give it another try should all others decline. He is at least moderately known statewide, having waged vigorous campaigns first against Senator Kennedy and then Senator Kerry, who at the time was the state's lieutenant governor.

Though there is nothing to suggest that Shamie's interest in going to the Senate has waned, presumably he would prefer to wait till 1990 and take on Mr. Kerry rather than go up against the more strongly entrenched Kennedy again.

Since taking the GOP helm in Massachusetts a year ago, Shamie has made it clear that his immediate efforts are, and will be, directed toward rebuilding his party. The Bay State GOP's voter enrollment, which has been shrinking for more than three decades, at latest tally was down to 389,812, compared with 1.4 million Democrats and 1.2 million independents. No Republican has been elected to statewide office since 1962, when Brooke won his second senatorial term.

Although Kennedy has not formally declared, he is almost sure to seek a fifth six-year term. No Massachusetts elected official has been more visible or audible within the state than Kennedy has over the past six months.

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Whoever the GOP senatorial candidate is, he or she can be expected to be largely ignored by Kennedy, as has been the case in each of his campaigns since his first Senate victory in November 1962.

Those Bay State Democrats, including conservative elements, who would weep little were the senator to leave office, have long since learned to keep any anti-Kennedy sentiments to themselves.

They can hardly overlook the fact that since John Kennedy, the senator's brother, won election to Congress from Massachusetts 42 years ago, no member of the family has lost a primary or election here. The most recent reminder of the Kennedy appeal was the election of Joseph Kennedy II, the senator's nephew, to the state's Eighth Congressional District seat less than 17 months ago.

A candidate for US Senate in Massachusetts needs not less than 10,000 signatures of voters registered in his or her party. These must be filed with secretary of state by June 7.

Kennedy could get the needed support in hours. And getting enough signatures should pose no problem for a Republican, since the GOP state committee could be expected to help out.

Failure to field a GOP senatorial candidate would be an embarrassment and could leave the party in the awkward position of either letting Kennedy have a new six-year term by default, or trying to run a candidate on stickers or by ``write-in'' votes in the primary. Such a late-blooming candidate to qualify for November, however, would have to have at least 10,000 votes to be nominated.

George Merry is a longtime observer of the Massachusetts political scene.

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