BOSTON — The race for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death last week of Edward Kennedy got off to a cautious start Tuesday, despite a tight five-month election schedule that leaves little time for campaigning. By the end of the day just one major candidate – state Attorney General Martha Coakley – opted to take out nomination papers. A campaign aide declined to comment.
Other possible contenders decided to hold back in part to see whether a member of the Kennedy family might decide to enter the race – including Kennedy's widow Vicki Kennedy or his nephew, the former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II.
Another possible contender – former U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan – said he is "thinking about" a run for the seat and hopes to make a decision by the end of the week.
Meehan, now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, is waiting to see whether a Kennedy jumps in. Meehan has $4.8 million in his federal campaign account, the largest sum of any potential candidate.
"There's a lot of speculation about whether Joe Kennedy or Vicki Kennedy would run and I think either of them would make a great senator," he said. "Certainly if one of the two Kennedy candidates decided to run, I would support them."
Other possible candidates include several members of Massachusetts all-Democratic congressional delegation – Reps. Stephen Lynch, Michael Capuano and Edward Markey. All three have sizable federal campaign war chests, including $1.3 million for Lynch, $1.2 million for Capuano and $2.8 million for Markey as of June 30.
Capuano said he hopes to make a decision in the next week or so, and in the meantime he's reaching out to political allies and completing more mundane tasks like upgrading computers.
"I'm doing my own gut check now," Capuano said. "This is not something I take lightly. I want to make sure there's a legitimate path to victory for me."
Capuano, who has Joe Kennedy's old House seat, suggested he would be unlikely to run if Kennedy seeks the seat.
"If Joe's in it, it's awfully hard to run against someone you respect so much," Capuano said.
Another Democrat weighing a run is Gloucester attorney Edward O'Reilly, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. John Kerry in last year's Democratic primary.
"I am very seriously considering it. I ran for the same office less than a year ago and received 31 percent of the vote," O'Reilly said.
On the Republican side, potential candidates were even more tightlipped.
Former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and state Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, have all been mentioned as possible candidates, but none responded to requests for comment.
Other political figures decided to take their names out of the running.
Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray issued a statement saying that despite receiving "words of encouragement from many supporters suggesting that I consider running for the United States Senate seat," he will keep his day job.
"I look forward to running and winning re-election with Governor Patrick in 2010," Murray said.
Gov. Deval Patrick, in response to a reporter's question on Monday, also snuffed out a suggestion that he might have his eye on the Senate seat, saying he remains focused on his job as governor.
Potential candidates will have to decide fairly quickly if they're in or out given the quick pace of the special election.
The first major deadline, Oct. 20, is less than two months away. That's when candidates vying for their party's nomination must deliver the signatures of at least 10,000 voters to local officials for certification to secure a spot on the Dec. 8 primary ballot.
The final election is just six weeks later on Jan. 19.
Voters are facing their own deadlines. The last day to register for the primary is Nov. 12, and for the general election the registration deadline is Dec. 30.
While possible candidates have their eye on the special election, Massachusetts lawmakers were gearing up for a public hearing scheduled for Sept. 9 on a contentious bill that would change state law to let the governor make an interim appointment to the seat until the election.
Gov. Patrick supports the change, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, and Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, haven't said whether they back it.
Democrats are facing charges of hypocrisy from critics who point out that just five years ago, they changed the law to block then-Gov. Mitt Romney from naming a fellow Republican to fill the seat if Kerry, the Democrats' presidential nominee, won his White House campaign.
Before that change, the governor was allowed to appoint a nominee until the next general election. As part of the 2004 change, Democratic lawmakers also blocked the possibility of Romney naming an interim senator.
Patrick said it's unfair to let Massachusetts to go five months without two voices in the Senate. He said he'd ask for a guarantee from whoever he named as interim senator not to run in the special election.
National Democratic leaders including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also support the interim appointment. They say they need as many votes as they can during the debate on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Kennedy died last week of brain cancer at age 77.
Associated Press writer Andrew Miga in Washington contributed to this report.