LOWELL, Mass. (AP) – U.S. Sen. John Kerry will have a challenger in the Democratic primary for the first time since taking federal office 23 years ago.

Gloucester attorney Edward O’Reilly received about 23 percent of the vote of delegates at the annual state Democratic convention Saturday, well over the 15 percent needed to earn a spot on the ballot.

The 1,994 to 580 vote in favor of Kerry came despite lobbying by Kerry’s campaign, including contacting individual delegates, to keep O’Reilly from meeting the 15 percent threshold.

After the vote, Kerry said he welcomed the chance to face an opponent in the primary, and noted his strong support at Saturday’s convention.

“Anytime you get 78 percent of the vote, you’re doing pretty well,” he said

O’Reilly, a former firefighter who put himself through law school, called Saturday’s vote “unbelievable,” considering Kerry’s attempts to keep him off the ballot. But Kerry said lobbying delegates is part of running for office.

O’Reilly added, “I am not in this to lose,” though few think O’Reilly could beat Kerry. Still, O’Reilly’s candidacy will force Kerry to campaign before the September primary, instead of focusing on the general election in November. Kerry or O’Reilly will face Republican Jeff Beatty, a former Army Delta Force officer from Harwich who is unopposed in the GOP primary.

The primary campaign could also embarrass Kerry, depending on how much support O’Reilly gets.

O’Reilly said he supported Kerry when he was the Democrats’ presidential nominee during the 2004 presidential election. But he said he’s running because Kerry has not been strong enough in his opposition to the Iraq War, or his support for gay marriage.

O’Reilly spoke Saturday of improving the nation’s health care system and of opening up government to the people of Massachusetts. He criticized Kerry as an out-of-touch politician and questioned his commitment to his constituents.

“Photo ops and sound bites and not going to bring bold changes,” he said. “We need a fighter and a worker.”

Also Saturday, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who is battling a malignant brain tumor, was on the minds of many party leaders, who paid tribute to him and his work. Kerry said Kennedy e-mailed him Saturday morning, saying he wished he could attend the convention. Kerry said he responded, “You are here.”

Kerry also passed on a message to Kennedy, saying: “We love you and we can’t wait for you to return to the Senate fighting for causes.”

AP-ES-06-07-08 1658EDT

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