The death of Sen. Ted Kennedy is likely to set off a political frenzy in his home state -- with a generation's worth of ambitious politicians expected to seriously consider pursuing the first open Senate seat in Massachusetts in a quarter-century.
The race in the heavily Democratic state will be a five-month sprint that may pit some of the Bay State's most prominent politicians and political families against each other.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are seriously considering complying with the senator's dying wish: that his seat be filled in the interim by a Democrat, who won't run for election, to fill out the rest of his Senate term, which runs through 2012.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said on "Good Morning America" today that allowing him to make an interim appointment is a "reasonable request."
"I think that the senator's made a very reasonable request," Patrick said. "I support the idea of a special election, which is provided for in our current law and the senator did as well. Now, having said that, I have to say that our first thoughts today are on the life and the extraordinary achievements of the senator."
Possible candidates for the seat include Kennedy's widow, Vicki; the senator's nephew, Joe; Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., whose late husband once held Massachusetts' other Senate seat; the state's popular attorney general, Martha Coakley; and several veteran House members who've been waiting years or even decades for a chance to advance politically.
When asked about a potential Senate successor and whether he would like to see a member of the Kennedy clan claim the seat, the governor refused to bite.
"Those are very personal decisions and, you know, we've got ... so much political talent in Massachusetts and have, historically, in the family and beyond," Patrick said. "I know there's a lot of interest ... in this seat, but, again, I think almost everybody who is interested in this seat, and beyond, is focused mainly right now on grieving the loss of a giant."
Among the multitude of ways Sen. Kennedy's death leaves a void: For the first time in more than half a century, a major post will be filled in Massachusetts without clear leadership from one of the nation's most enduring political dynasties.
Yet the Kennedy legacy will loom over the race -- both in the memories of the man who served the commonwealth for 47 years and, quite possibly, in the presence of a close Kennedy relative who decides to try to pick up the family torch.
"It's not just a Kennedy vacating the job -- it's a Senate seat in Massachusetts, and these do not come along but maybe once in a lifetime," said Dan Payne, a veteran Boston-based Democratic consultant.
Under existing law, the Senate seat will not be filled until a special election is held, as long as 160 days from now. That's because of a legal change Democrats forced through five years ago to deny then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, the chance to name a successor to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., if he had won the presidency.
Kennedy Requested State Change Law on Vacant Senate Seat
But Kennedy. who died Tuesday at age 77, sent a letter to state lawmakers last week asking them to change the law again, this time to provide for a temporary replacement until the special election is held. After some initial hesitation, Patrick, the Democratic governor, and key legislative leaders support his dying wish.
"I don't think the Democrats should apologize for making sure that Sen. Kennedy's wishes are fulfilled," Phil Johnston, a Kennedy family friend and former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said Wednesday on ABCNews.com's "Top Line."
Given the outpouring of emotions surrounding Kennedy's death at the age of 77, the campaign to succeed him is unlikely to begin in earnest for several weeks.
The compressed timetable will boost the chances of candidates who are well-known and have the capacity to raise cash in a hurry. That's an automatic advantage to any candidate named Kennedy.
Prominent Democrats in Massachusetts see one possible heir to the seat in the senator's 55-year-old widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, a lawyer who married into the Kennedy clan in 1992. The Boston Globe reported last week that she has told associates she's not interested in coming to the Senate. But other observers insist that she'd at least consider an interim appointment, or could be talked into running for the seat.
Vicki Kennedy has grown increasingly involved in the operations of her husband's political and Senate operations in recent years. She developed into something of a guardian of the Ted Kennedy legacy in the months of his long decline.
"The senator has been grooming her," one prominent Massachusetts Democrat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "When it comes to the Senate seat, business is business. The only way to ensure the legacy is to have his wife take the seat."
Several well-connected Democrats say several other high-profile potential candidates would be likely to defer to Vicki Kennedy if she decides to run. The mere possibility of her candidacy could freeze in place several other hopefuls, particularly during a mourning period in which she would be unlikely to announce her intentions.
Still, Vicki Kennedy has never been particularly close to her husband's family, or to the legions of Kennedy loyalists and once and current staff members who populate Massachusetts politics.
Other Kennedys Could Fill Senate Seat
Should Vicki Kennedy decide not to run, another possible candidate would be Joseph P. Kennedy II, the eldest son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Ted's older brother. Joe Kennedy, 56, represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives for six terms until 1999 and now runs the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp.
Any Kennedy in the race would affect the interest level of other Democrats, and could scare off other would-be Democratic challengers.
One Democrat who is expected to run, regardless, is Coakley, the state's first-term attorney general, who, polls suggest, is one of the most popular politicians in the state. As Massachusetts' only female, statewide officeholder, she would stand out in a crowded primary field, although she'd start from scratch in terms of fundraising for federal office.
Several members of the state's all-Democratic congressional delegation would also be expected to jump into a Kennedy-less field. They include Rep. Mike Capuano, a liberal from Somerville, Mass., and Rep. Stephen Lynch, a conservative Democrat from South Boston.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, the widow of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., might also consider a run. But with only two years' service in the House, some in the state believe she may instead choose to stay in the House.
University of Massachusetts-Lowell chancellor Marty Meehan, who left Congress two years ago but still has nearly $5 million in his federal campaign account, also will mull a run. But those close to Meehan say he's likely to conclude that he'd be better off staying in his current job longer. He would be pressed to take a leave of absence, if not resign his post, to campaign for the Senate.
Another intriguing possibility would be for Patrick to run for Senate, perhaps in lieu of a re-election bid in 2010. The governor is a close friend of President Barack Obama's, although his political standing has eroded in his home state after a series of early blunders.
Political insiders believe that the two longest-serving -- and highest-profile -- House members from the state, Reps. Barney Frank and Ed Markey, are unlikely to run for Senate. Both Democrats were likely candidates if Kerry's seat had come open in 2004, but both have ascended to powerful chairmanships under Democratic control of Congress, and would hesitate before sacrificing their seniority.
Potential Republicans Eyeing Massachusetts' Senate Seat
The race will be difficult for any Republican candidate to break through, although a big-name or self-funded candidate could change the dynamics.
Romney -- who lost a close race to Kennedy for the Senate seat in 1994 -- may face calls from national voices to run. But with his sights trained on the presidency, he is unlikely to risk his political standing by jumping in the race.
Former Gov. Paul Cellucci and former White House chief of staff Andy Card also are mentioned as possible candidates. But their ties to former President George W. Bush likely would become major campaign issues.
Kerry Healey, who was Romney's lieutenant governor and lost a 2006 gubernatorial race, is considered by GOP insiders to be a likely candidate and, perhaps, the party's best shot at picking up the seat.
Other possible Republican candidates include state Sen. Scott Brown; Christopher Egan, a real estate developer and the son of EMC Corp. founder Jack Egan; and former U.S. Rep. Peter Torkildsen.
If Patrick is empowered to make an interim selection, possible candidates include former Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democrats' 1988 presidential nominee.
"We passed health reform in the Dukakis administration 20 years ago here," said Johnston, the Kennedy family friend who served in Dukakis' cabinet, "and wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if his was the deciding vote on behalf of Sen. Kennedy?"