PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy was working the breakfast crowd at Anthony's Place, working it hard, reaching for hands, slapping backs, joshing with old friends, making eye contact with strangers.
"Patrick Kennedy," he said, grabbing for still another hand. "Patrick Kennedy. Nice to see you."
Some of the strangers — not all, but a fair number — averted their eyes, offered a limp hand or, worse, shrugged and dug deeper into their scrambled eggs and pancakes.
So it goes these days for Kennedy, 34, the youngest son of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, nephew of John and Robert Kennedy, champion fund-raiser for the Democratic Party, rising star in the House of Representatives. Some of the old magic is gone, eroded, political analysts say, by Kennedy's failure to spend enough time mending fences in his district and by nagging reports of a sometimes troubled personal life. For the first time since he was elected to Congress eight years ago, he finds himself having to campaign hard for re-election.
"It's a new development for me," he said, "something I haven't experienced."
Kennedy's district, the 1st, stretches down the eastern side of the state. In past elections, he has always won by ratios of more than 2-1. But in the last 18 months, his job-approval rating has tumbled 20 points, to 40 percent, and Republicans, very much the minority in Rhode Island, are smelling blood.
Three are vying for the right to take him on in the fall — Christine Ferguson, a former director of the state Department of Human Services; Mike Battles, a businessman and former Army Ranger; and David Rogers, a technical analyst and former member of the Navy Seals.
"Patrick Kennedy has miserably failed the people of Rhode Island," said Ferguson, who is given the best shot at becoming the Republican nominee because of her name recognition, her government experience and her moderate views, which may enable her to attract a significant segment of the state's big independent vote.
"He's hardly spent any time in the district because he's been so busy running around the country building up his national reputation," she went on. "He's embarrassed us with his egregious incidents of personal conduct. He can be beaten. That Kennedy name and that Kennedy money and that Kennedy brand of liberalism won't save him this time."