BOSTON // As U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy battles a brain tumour in Massachusetts General Hospital, his home state is hoping his illness will not bring a swift end to the Kennedy era.
Kennedy, 76, the last of four brothers in America's most storied political dynasty, has been in the hospital since he suffered a seizure at his family vacation home on Cape Cod on Sunday.
"There seems to be no one there to pick up the torch," said Thomas Whalen, a professor of politics at Boston University.
"There doesn't seem to be someone in the next generation to carry the load here -- Ted Kennedy might be it, he might be the end of the line," said Whalen, author of "Kennedy versus Lodge: The 1952 Massachusetts Senate Race."
Massachusetts, a bastion of the type of liberal politics Kennedy championed for four decades, has been stunned by the Democratic icon's diagnosis of glioma, a type of tumour that kills half its victims within a year.
"Everyone has to take a deep breath," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. "There will be no pressure on him to step down even if he becomes quite ill from treatment."
"Nobody is going to be in a rush to replace him with a new senator who starts at the bottom of the seniority chain."
It is unclear whether Kennedy will have to resign because of his illness, but he is expected to take time off from the Senate while undergoing chemotherapy.
The prospect of his incapacitation has sparked inevitable speculation over who might succeed the second-longest serving current senator, and whether a new generation is poised to emerge from his shadow to continue the family legacy.
QUESTIONS OVER KENNEDY SEAT
Many younger Kennedys are active in civic life but none on the scale of Ted Kennedy and his celebrated brothers -- assassinated President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was shot dead in 1968.
The eldest brother, Joseph Jr., was killed in World War Two.
The options are limited for another Kennedy to take the Senate seat held by the family for nearly five decades.
Kennedy's nephew, Joseph Kennedy -- son of Robert Kennedy -- is often cited as one possibility.
He served six terms as a U.S. congressman from Massachusetts and now runs the non-profit Citizens Energy Corp, which delivers cheap heating oil to the state's poor.
He considered running for governor of Massachusetts several times but always decided against it, including in 1997 when his ex-wife came out with a book that was less than flattering about him.
After deciding not to run again in 2001, he told The Boston Globe: "This is not a rejection of politics for me. I just like what I do at Citizens."
Democrats, aware of the deep affection for the Kennedy family, could urge the 55-year-old to seek his uncle's seat.
Under Massachusetts state law, a vacancy in the U.S. Senate would force the Massachusetts governor to call a special election between 145 and 160 days after it becomes official.
Other Kennedys could also keep the legacy alive, although none project the stature of the white-haired Kennedy, dubbed one of "America's 10 best Senators" by Time Magazine and widely regarded as one of Washington's most effective dealmakers.
"In the age when Massachusetts is not politically what it used to be, having a senior guy like Ted Kennedy was quite important, so losing that would be significant for Massachusetts," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of politics at Princeton University. "So who replaces him is very important."
Other Kennedy torch-bearers include Ted Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Democratic Congressman from neighbouring Rhode Island. He would need to move to Massachusetts if were to run for his father's seat.
Patrick Kennedy's brushes with controversy could also complicate a run for higher office -- most recently in 2006 when he sought help for dependency on prescription drugs after crashing his car into a security barrier at the Capitol in Washington.
The political fortunes of another family member, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest child of Robert Kennedy and a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, foundered in 2002 when she lost a bid for governor.
Other prominent Kennedys include Caroline Kennedy, 50, daughter of John F. Kennedy. An author and philanthropist, she waded into presidential politics this year with a high-profile endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
The list goes on: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist, has never held office but told television host Oprah Winfrey last year that he might run for the U.S. Senate seat for New York held by Hillary Clinton if the former first lady succeeded in her bid for the White House.