NEW YORK – Caroline Kennedy's dynastic political celebrity is proving both a blessing and a curse as she angles for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy, 51, has her sights set on the job that New York Gov. David Paterson must fill when Hillary Clinton is confirmed as secretary of state.
As a little girl, Kennedy stole American hearts when her father, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963. But since entering the fray, the author and lawyer has felt the lash of the political combat she always has avoided.
Critics have claimed she is hiding from the press and she sparked more anger when her spokesman merely gave written answers to questions on little known specifics of her political world view to the Politico Web site.
Her spurning of the media has drawn comparisons Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential hopeful who was shielded from journalists and punished by shaky news interviews.
"They've basically Sarah Palinized her, if I could coin a phrase," Democratic New York Congressman Gary Ackerman said on CBS. "She's not talking to reporters."
Kennedy highlights her record of charitable works, service on cultural boards, and efforts to reform New York's education system as proof of a commitment to public service.
But she was embarrassed by a report that she had not always voted in key elections and she got off to a rocky start with local media on a trip beyond the safety of liberal Manhattan.
"Kennedy mangled her foray into upstate New York last week," Buffalo News columnist Douglas Turner wrote on Monday. "Her behavior gave aid and comfort to those who say she isn't tough enough to win a primary and two general elections in 27 months."
Kennedy faces claims of using her celebrity and the mythology of her family dynasty to land a plumb job despite a paucity of political experience.
"This is a real presumption on her part that at this stage of her life, she's decided she wants to become United States senator," said Peter King, a New York Republican congressman, on Fox News. "She has nothing in her life experience that's prepared her for this."
But King is hardly a disinterested observer and may be eyeing a 2010 Senate race himself, when it is possible he could face Kennedy.
To critics who carp at Kennedy's life of privilege, supporters cite the liberal legacy of her beloved uncle and Senate veteran Edward Kennedy who has spent a lifetime working on healthcare and education.
Paradoxically, it may be that the furor over Kennedy's political ambitions may enhance her star power.
As she makes an implicit case that she would punch well above the weight of a single Senate vote, she has drowned out other candidates for Clinton's job.
Rivals include worthy but little known lawmakers and Andrew Cuomo, himself political royalty as the son of a famed New York governor.
And for all the accusations against Kennedy, celebrity, wealth, and a blue-chip political brand have rarely impeded the path to power. Then there is the question of money.
Whoever is selected by Paterson must run for the two years left in Clinton's term in 2010 and then could opt to try for a six-year tenure in 2012.
That means a multimillion-dollar advertising bill in New York's pricey media market and a knack for courting wealthy donors, where again the Kennedy name may be an asset.
Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, already seems to have made a wider political calculation.
"She's lived in government and politics her whole life," Reid told a local television show in his native Nevada.
"We have a lot of stars from New York. Bobby Kennedy. Hillary Clinton. I think Caroline Kennedy would be perfect."
As one of 100, in a body organized on strict lines of seniority, a new member of the Senate has little direct influence. But when it comes to cajoling and persuading, Kennedy may have an advantage.
"She is one of these people who at least potentially have clout right from the start, because of who she is," said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University, while noting New York's "horrible" budget crisis.
"Governor Paterson is looking to Capitol Hill and he needs help, he is trying to make a calculation about who can bring him and the state the greatest reward."
There is also a political calculation. Paterson may be envisioning Kennedy's name on the ballot near his when he runs for office in 2010.
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