Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has scheduled the special election to fill the US Senate seat vacated by the death of Senator Edward Kennedy’s seat.

The date is January 19, 2010, with primaries on December 8 of this year.

While Patrick has started the ridiculously slow election timetable, he is still angling to appoint a “temporary senator” to occupy the seat until late January.

To do that, Patrick must get the legislature to change Massachusetts election law, and the governor just lost the best card he had to play.

Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the lion of the Senate’s widow, was being promoted by senior senators, including Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who were close to Kennedy. And that would have made it easier to sell her as a short-term successor — a prospect that might have helped Patrick nudge Democratic legislators who are not so sure that manipulating rules regarding senatorial succession for partisan purposes is a good idea.

But, on Monday, Vicki Kennedy reportedly signaled to Patrick that she does not want to be considered for appointment or election to the seat.

That put another Kennedy name at the top of the list of Democratic prospects.

Former Congressman Joe Kennedy, the senator’s nephew, appears to be considering a run.

At least, that’s what Kennedy family friends are telling reporters.

Joe Kennedy would be a formidable contender. He’s got the name, $2 million in an old campaign account and some reasonably solid progressive credentials — since leaving Congress a decade ago (after 12 years service), he’s been in the forefront of efforts to lower energy prices and provide low-cost heating oil to the poor.

When Joe Kennedy served in the US House it was often suggested that he was a likely successor to his uncle. And he seemed to suggest an interest at a memorial service where he ruminated about the importance of public service and about his desire to achieve “the same goals and ideals that Senator Ted Kennedy lived his life for.”

Even if Joe Kennedy runs, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a popular official who has won statewide races, might enter the Democratic primary.

Democratic Congressmen Michael E. Capuano, Stephen F. Lynch and Edward J. Markey are less likely to challenge a Kennedy, as is former Congressman Martin T. Meehan, who quit the House two years ago to take over as to chancellor of the University of Massachusetts campus in his hometown of Lowell.

On the Republican side, former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey is prepping a run, while her old running mate, former Governor Mitt Romney, has taken himself out of the running.

The bottom line: Massachusetts will have a real race for the Senate seat Kennedy held for the better part of a half century.

The questions that remains are related:

Will Patrick and his legislative allies muddy the waters by changing the rules that bar an appointment?

And why don’t they simply set a more rapid schedule for the election — which is currently on a timeline that takes almost two more months than special election cycles in other states?