Rep. Kennedy's Alcohol Scandal Doesn't Faze Voters in Rhode Island

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There's only one question Rep. Patrick Kennedy really answers this campaign. It came up at an ice cream social. It's raised on the street. He even hears it in bedrock Democratic neighborhoods.

"How are you feeling?" asked a white-haired woman at a high-rise for the elderly.

"I've never felt better," he said. "One day at a time."

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It's an answer some people — let alone politicians under intense media scrutiny — couldn't give after the year he's had: checking himself into a rehabilitation center, crashing his car at 3 a.m. into a security barrier outside the U.S. Capitol, returning to rehab and then pleading guilty to driving under the influence of prescription drugs. He's admitted battling depression, bipolar disorder, an addiction to prescription drugs and bouts of binge drinking.

The drama doesn't seem to faze Rhode Island voters.

A September poll by Brown University of 578 likely voters showed the six-term Kennedy with support from 60 percent of those surveyed, compared to 25 percent for Jonathan Scott. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Instead of hiding, Kennedy, 39, called a news conference before he went into rehabilitation and immediately returned to Rhode Island after he got out. A campaign commercial got right to the point.

"It's no secret this has been a challenging year for me, and I'm grateful for the support so many of you have shown" Kennedy says into the camera, then promises to work on rising energy and health care costs.

His constituents seem forgiving — to a point.

"If the guy is trying to improve himself and get help, everyone deserves a break," said Elena Baldinelli, 66, a Kennedy supporter. "If he keeps doing it, he's going to ruin it for himself."

Kennedy's Republican opponent said the race is winnable even though he faces an incumbent with massive name recognition and far more campaign cash. Although Scott accuses Kennedy of being weak on border security and criticizes him for supporting universal health care plans, the mental health counselor seemed reluctant to raise Kennedy's relapse.

"We always talk about him in terms of his personal problems, his last name and his bank account," Scott said. "If it weren't for those three things, we wouldn't talk about him at all."

Even among his supporters, Kennedy knows he's being judged.

"They are sizing me up," he said in a recent interview. "They take stock of me."

"And one of the good things for my recovery is I am in the public eye. And that's good for me personally because I'm going to have people always looking over my shoulder, always looking in my eye. Every room I ever walk into, they're going to be looking at me."

Few of the state's leading Republicans criticized Kennedy after his crash, except Patricia Morgan, chairwoman of the state GOP.

"Most Rhode Islanders are good, solid, hardworking people who would be embarrassed to be crashing their car into a barrier in the middle of the night and getting off scot-free because of who he is," she said recently.

Rather than devoting a lot of time defending himself and his six terms in Congress, Kennedy instead has spent time this campaign handing out federal grants, shaking hands and invoking his family name on behalf of Democratic candidates. He is the son of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Even critics sometimes concede that Kennedy is effective. Carmine Ruggerio, 55, an unaffiliated voter, heard Kennedy speak at a nursing home.

He complained that Kennedy got off light after this year's crash. But when Ruggerio's sister lost four toes, couldn't walk and had difficulty securing a handicapped license plate, the family knew who to call.

"She called up Patrick Kennedy and she got it," said Ruggerio. "I don't think anybody could beat a Kennedy. I don't care who runs against them. He could be a Republican and win, too. It's the name."

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