With Sen. Edward Kennedy's death making world headlines Wednesday, the race to succeed him begins in earnest -- on Thursday -- and promises to be crowded and fiercely fought.
Unlike most states where governors appoint a successor, Massachusetts law requires a special election within 145-160 days after a Senate seat becomes vacant, which means one must be held by January. The law bans the governor from making an interim appointment.
The political implications loom large for both parties. Democrats in largely liberal Massachusetts need to keep Kennedy's seat to maintain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate as the majority keeps on pushing through Kennedy's signature wish for nationalized health care and President Obama's ambitious agenda.
Republicans are hoping a victory will begin a resurgence in Congress, though pundits say that scenario is unlikely to start in Massachusetts. A Republican hasn't held a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts since 1979, when Edward Brooke was defeated by Paul Tsongas.
Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, said a Senate election is not of any "significance" to Republicans because of the "nature of Massachusetts politics." He noted that only 13 percent of registered voters in the state are Republican.
"I don't think there is a Republican who can beat a Democrat," he said.
On the Republican side, potential candidates include former Massachusetts Govs. Mitt Romney and William Weld; Massachusetts native and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card; state Sen. Scott Brown; Cape Cod businessman Jeff Beatty; former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey; former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan; and Chris Egan, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Cooperation and Development.
"There's not a deep bench," Berry said of the potential for an upset.
The list of interested candidates on the Democratic side is long, and begins within Kennedy's family. Speculation has swirled that Kennedy's wife, Vicki, is interested in the seat but family aides have said she does not want to replace her husband either temporarily or permanently.
"I don't think anybody discounts her until she says it publicly," Berry said.
One of Kennedy's nephews, former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, has also been described as interested.
Both have great name recognition, Berry said, and Joseph Kennedy "could give a powerful and moving speech for someone to grab the torch that has now fallen." But the downside for him, Berry said, is "he left with some contempt for Congress and made no secret of it. He might have some explaining to do."
Other potential Democratic candidates include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; state Attorney General Martha Coakley; U.S. Reps. Stephen Lynch, Michael Capuano, Edward Markey, James McGovern and William Delahunt; and former Rep. Martin Meehan, now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who was named as a possible contender to replace Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank said he will not seek the seat.
Patrick has often been named as someone possibly eyeing the now-vacant seat, but he's lacking critical support in the state, even losing within the margin to his 2010 gubernatorial re-election race to leading Republican challenger Christy Mihos, according to a Rasmussen poll out Monday. His approval rating in the poll of 500 Massachusetts voters was at 39 percent, and he was respected least in a list of four famous Massachusetts pols, including Kennedy, Romney and Kerry.
"I don't think he's a credible candidate," Berry said, adding that even if he was popular, he hasn't "accomplished a great deal" in his two and half years as governor.
In February, Coakley, who has statewide name recognition, acknowledged that she had held a poll of voters to see if she were a viable candidate. She told The Associated Press that she was interested in learning about statewide issues, and if she were considering a possible federal campaign, "If we were going to do that, we would have had to use federal money for that."
Coakley added she had not yet established a federal campaign committee to finance such things as federal poll questions.
"Coakley would be the favorite if no Kennedy is in the race," Berry said.
Money will be a big factor in who is to run, and all the congressional members are poised for a competitive run with substantial money in the bank. Markey has the most of all the representatives with $2.8 million cash on hand as of June 30, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Frank has the least, with $403,000. Markey reportedly told public radio on Wednesday that he hadn't thought yet about whether to go for it.
Last week, Kennedy asked Massachusetts leaders to change state law to give Patrick the power to appoint an interim replacement to Kennedy's seat should Kennedy be unable to continue serving.
"It is vital for this commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election," Kennedy wrote in a letter to Patrick.
Lawmakers are weighing a bill now that honors Kennedy's request. Lawmakers are expected to hold a public hearing next month on the proposal, moving up the consideration date from October, and allowing legislation to be passed and signed into law before the deadline for a special election.
But a change in the law isn't a sure bet. Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, all Democrats, have stayed mum on whether they would support the change.
But Patrick told a local radio station Wednesday that he believes the proposal was "entirely reasonable" and said he would sign the bill if it reached his desk.
The state last changed its succession law in 2004 to require the special election. Before that the governor was allowed to name a successor. At the time, Democrats were worried that then-Republican Gov. Mitt Romney would be able to fill any vacancy created if Democratic Sen. John Kerry was elected president.
Despite expressed admiration for Kennedy's legacy, Republicans are opposed to any proposal to change the current law.
"We must honor Senator Kennedy's service by allowing those who sent him to the Senate to decide the next generation of leaders for Massachusetts," said Jennifer Nassour, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.