In a vivid piece of political theater, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts attacked his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, for his views on abortion, health care and Social Security.
Romney, calm under fire, gave as good as he got during most of the 60-minute confrontation Tuesday night, but he failed to dent the composure of Kennedy, who came into the first of two debates between the pair buoyed by a new poll showing him with a substantial lead. Romney scored with jabs at the senator's use of religion earlier in the campaign and with his depictions of the senator as the spokesman for an outdated kind of liberalism.
But Kennedy managed to make his opponent look inexperienced in the intricacies of federal finance and the way that legislation is enacted.
The debate, telecast statewide, was staged in Faneuil Hall, a red-brick structure dating from pre-Revolutionary times whose cupola is crowned by a gilded metal grasshopper.
Much of the early part of the debate centered on jobs, and it quickly degenerated into a shouting match that the moderator, Ken Bode, had trouble calming. Romney said he knew how to create jobs because of his "skill and experience in the private sector," while Kennedy argued that his seniority in the Senate better qualified him to provide the training and education needed to guarantee well-paying jobs for the state.
Then the senator accused Romney of denying medical care to part-time workers he employs. Romney called that hypocrisy and said the Kennedy family did the same thing at its Merchandise Mart in Chicago, and the shouting began.
Kennedy, who is 62, allowed Romney to seize the initiative over the summer and found himself in a dead heat by Labor Day. Romney, trim and handsome at 47, was transformed from a little-known venture capitalist (albeit one with a famous name) into a David who might slay Goliath.
In one protracted wrangle involving Romney's accusations about Kennedy's personal finances, the senator said stonily: "Mr. Romney, the Kennedys are not in public service to make money. We have suffered too much for that."
A poll carried out over the weekend by the Boston Herald showed Kennedy widening his lead, largely because of defections from Romney by independents.
Romney needed a strong showing on Tuesday and another in a second debate scheduled for Thursday night in Holyoke to stage a comeback in the two weeks remaining until Election Day.