EDWARD KENNEDY ought to be breathing a little easier these days.
A storm of negative publicity over the United States senator's personal behavior is waning, and now the veteran Massachusetts Democrat can look forward to working with a Democratic administration to pass liberal legislation so close to his heart.
But Senator Kennedy may not have time to savor the moment. Instead, he's busy preparing for what could be the most challenging reelection campaign of his 32-year career in the Senate.
Already, he has hired new staff, built up a $1 million war chest, and met with Massachusetts Democratic Party officials to plot strategy for the November 1994 election.
"As someone who has observed him for innumerable years, I've never seen this much coordinated activity this early," says Michael Goldman, a Boston-based Democratic consultant. "Here it is, [nearly] April 1993 and he has already lined [things] up and is already talking about a 16-month reelection."
The senator may have been spurred into action by several opinion polls. For instance, in a February survey conducted by KRC Communications Research of Newton, Mass., 40 percent of the respondents said they viewed the senator favorably, while 41 said they had an unfavorable impression of him.
"For someone who is an incumbent with as many years in office as he has had, that really bodes poorly for his chances of reelection," says Gene Hartigan, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party.
Kennedy's relatively high unfavorable rating is due primarily to problems in his personal life. Although he seems to have put memories of Chappaquidick to rest, Kennedy's reputation suffered last year during the Palm Beach rape trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, who was later acquitted.
The Florida episode prompted Kennedy to publicly announce that he would moderate his excessive behavior. Over the past year, he has tried to demonstrate a more stable lifestyle by making public appearances with his new wife, Washington lawyer Victoria Reggie.
"He seems to be a man who is very much at ease with his personal life," says Paul Watanabe, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Despite Kennedy's efforts to close an ugly chapter of his life, the public's interest in his personal conduct lingers. Among the scores of books and magazine articles that are being written about the senator is Lester David's biography, "Good Ted, Bad Ted: The Two Faces of Edward M. Kennedy," due out in late April.
Other problems may beset Kennedy, as well:
* Political analysts believe his base of support is eroding. While older voters may still support him, younger people and women in particular do not share the same attachment to the Kennedy mystique, says William Schneider, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
* The Bay State may be mired in recession. In 1990, angry Massachusetts voters kicked out many incumbents due, in part, to a souring regional economy and state budget crisis. Kennedy may face a similarly rough fight if the economy in Massachusetts doesn't pick up by 1994, Mr. Schneider says.
* The Clinton honeymoon probably will be over by 1994. Generally, when people become dissatisfied with the president, they take their anger out on his party, Schneider notes. As a result, Kennedy and other Democratic candidates running for office during the midterm election may be on the defensive.
But the picture for Kennedy is not entirely glum. The senator stands to benefit from the Clinton administration's focus on health-care reform - an issue that Kennedy has advocated for years. Now, as chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, the Massachusetts senator finds himself at the center of attempts to frame legislation in this area.
"If he is influential in sponsoring that issue in the Senate and getting it through - championing that cause which has always been his cause - that would be his finest moment," Schneider says.
Even if Kennedy does not oversee an overhaul of the nation's health-care system, the senator will not be easy to defeat in 1996. He can still bank on the Kennedy family's legacy and his many years of effective service in the Senate.
"It's a sophisticated game and it's not clear the Republicans have all the pieces to do the job," says Lou DiNatale, senior fellow at the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Potential Republican opponents for Kennedy include Andrew Card, former Massachusetts state legislator and secretary of transportation in the Bush administration, and Gloria Larson, the state consumer affairs secretary.
Although Ms. Larson is not widely known in the state, she is a middle-of-the-road, pro-choice Republican.
"If the Republicans were to come up with a strong and appealing female candidate, that could give Kennedy a run for his money," Schneider says.
The election could well turn on what kind of legacy Kennedy wants to leave as a senator, Mr. DiNatale says. The Kennedy family scion could be trying to pave the way for handing over his Senate seat in the year 2000 to his nephew, US Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.
"I think he's looking for not simply another term, but a reestablishing of some contact with the electorate," DiNatale says. "I don't think he's just trying to survive another round. I think he's trying to say, `This is who I am.' "