Sen. John Kerry is facing his first primary opponent since he first took office 23 years ago, and his challenger has one issue in mind: The senator's 2003 vote authorizing President Bush to launch military action against Iraq.
Ed O'Reilly said he was so incensed by Kerry's vote that he gave up his law practice to devote himself full-time to ousting the Democratic 2004 presidential nominee from office.
"I looked at that and said 'What kind of person would vote for a war knowing it's wrong?'" said O'Reilly, who supported Kerry's 2004 presidential bid after initially backing Howard Dean. "John Kerry knew the vote was wrong but to increase his chances to become president he voted for it anyway. It was a calculated vote based on his own political ambition."
Kerry has defended his vote, saying it was intended to give Bush a strong hand in seeking international sanctions — an option he says the White House did not pursue effectively.
Although few give O'Reilly anything more than long shot odds at defeating Kerry, the 55-year-old lawyer and former firefighter from the fishing village of Gloucester has already scored one victory.
Earlier this month, O'Reilly received the backing of about 23 percent of delegates at the annual state Democratic convention — despite an effort by Kerry supporters to deny him the 15 percent needed to get a spot on the ballot.
"John Kerry and his campaign worked so hard from the top down in order to squelch my candidacy and I still came out with nearly one out of four of the party insiders," he said. "That says a lot about how people feel about John Kerry."
A recent poll found 51 percent of people who have voted in previous general elections said it's time to give someone other than Kerry a chance, while 38 percent said the senator deserves to be re-elected. Nine percent were undecided, and 2 percent didn't respond. The Suffolk University/WHDH-TV poll of 500 Massachusetts voters was conducted during June 8-10 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Kerry supporters note the poll didn't mention O'Reilly. They also say the 23 percent of delegates O'Reilly won at the Democratic convention included pro-Hillary Clinton activists upset with Kerry's support of Barack Obama.
Kerry campaign manager Roger Lau pointed to a series of Kerry accomplishments, including legislation helping families avoid foreclosure, money for veterans' counseling services and $13 million in disaster assistance for the Massachusetts fishing industry.
"John Kerry is running for re-election because he wants to keep fighting to end the war in Iraq, make America energy independent and finally achieve health care for all Americans," Lau said.
Overshadowing the campaign is Sen. Edward Kennedy's battle with a malignant brain tumor. Denying Kerry another term would raise the possibility of Massachusetts having two novice U.S. senators if Kennedy were to be unable to complete his term.
The winner of the Sept. 22 primary will face Republican Jeffrey Beatty, a security consultant.
The primary challenge could be helpful for Kerry because it forces him to strengthen his ties at home, where he's faced frequent criticism as being aloof and disinterested in the nitty gritty of constituent services.
"It's probably healthy for him having to spend the summer interacting with voters in his home state," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "He's a true incumbent. He's elected because he's been elected. He doesn't elicit the same kind of loyalty as Kennedy."
O'Reilly put himself through law school at night while working as a firefighter and also has worked as a commercial lobsterman. As a lawyer, he says he's been involved in about 1,500 trials across the state over 20 years of practice. His only elected office was a stint on the school committee in Gloucester.
Although Kerry's vote on the Iraq war propelled O'Reilly into the campaign, he said he's tried to broaden his appeal by taking on other issues, from renewable energy to health care.
O'Reilly, who is unmarried and has a 26-year-old daughter, says he's undaunted by the vast financial gap between the two campaigns. He said his campaign has spent about $150,000. Kerry has a war chest in the millions.