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Newest Kennedy candidate drawn into debate in closing weeks of bid for Frank's seat

Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012: U.S. congressional candidates, Republican Sean Bielat, left, and Democrat Joseph Kennedy III, right, at a debate in Fall River, Mass.AP

The newest member of the Kennedy family to enter politics appears well positioned to win a congressional seat for Democrats in Massachusetts, but not before at least one TV debate in which his Republican opponent will try to expose his inexperience.

Joe Kennedy III entered the race with nearly every advantage over Republican Sean Bielat, an ex-Marine and businessman who like Kennedy has an Ivy League education.

In addition to having the name and the fundraising clout it carries, Kennedy also is vying for the seat of retiring Rep. Barney Frank – a Democrat who held that seat for nearly three decades.

However, what Kennedy, the son of  former Rep. Joseph Patrick Kennedy II and grandson of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, lacks is political experience. The 32-year-old Harvard Law School graduate entered the race in February after little more than a stint in the Peace Corps and a few years as an assistant district attorney in Massachusetts.

Pollsters have said Kennedy, who had a 32-point lead before even entering the race, is merely following good front-runner strategy of avoiding anything in the closing weeks that could blow an easy victory.

However, Kennedy has agreed to a TV debate Oct. 24 after being pressed by the Bielat campaign and two Boston Globe editorials urging him to be more engaged with voters. The debate is supposed to start at 7 a.m. and last for only several minutes.

“Despite working for months to keep him away from cameras and questions, I guess (the Kennedy campaign) realized that even Kennedys have to explain their qualifications to voters," Bielat said Tuesday. "Debates allow voters to have a side-by-side comparison.”

In addition, a Bielat campaign spokeswoman said Wednesday that internal polls show the race is much closer now, with as many as 11 percent of voters still undecided, and that the state's 4th congressional district is more conservative since it was redrawn in 2011.

The candidates have already engaged in one TV debate and are scheduled for two others – one Wednesday night for a small TV audience and a non-televised one Monday sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Kennedy appears to have held his own so far, and time is running out for Bielat, who lost to Frank in 2010 and whose long-shot odds this year failed to attract major national support from Republicans.

“Kennedy has a lot of advantages in that district in a presidential year in which Massachusetts will elect a Democratic president,” Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist said Wednesday. “He’s certainly ahead in polls, ahead in fundraising and in organization. So it’s probably smart strategy” to limit the debates. "But you’ve got to give Kennedy credit. He’s run a textbook campaign.”

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