New York » Caroline Kennedy has avoided politics most of her life. She has yet to utter a word publicly about her interest in running for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate seat.
But in a sign of the enduring power of the Kennedy mystique, even her secondhand statements of interest have spooked the rest of the crowded field.
Before she edged into the picture, Democratic Gov. David Paterson had been considering about a dozen other potential contenders, most prominent among them Kennedy's former relative by marriage, Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo, the son of Democratic Party icon and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, is the state's attorney general. Others who were said to be interested include Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi and Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand, Carolyn Maloney and Brian Higgins.
Then came Kennedy. Suddenly, the others seemed to shrink in stature.
"What are we, chopped liver?" asked Rep. Jose Serrano, a Bronx congressman who is not vying for the seat but is sympathetic to his fellow lawmakers who are being eclipsed by Kennedy.
"They think, 'My god, a Kennedy, how do I look like I'm not happy about a Kennedy?'" he said. "It's not logical, there's a lot of emotion in this, emotion about the good ol' days and the Kennedys and Camelot."
Still, ever since her cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., confirmed her interest some 10 days ago, she quickly became the top contender even as some criticized her as an amateur and compared her to the Jennifer Lopez of politics.
Last week, Queens congressman Gary Ackerman, a former Clinton supporter, said in a radio interview that he didn't know what Kennedy's qualifications were "except that she has name recognition, but so does J-Lo."
Kennedy, a writer and lawyer, has never held an elected office. She has been involved with numerous charities, has served as president of John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, and was a director of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Yet, in the end, Paterson may be hard pressed to turn down the only surviving child of former President John F. Kennedy. Among other considerations, there's the question of money.
Should Clinton be confirmed as secretary of state next year, Paterson will appoint someone to fill the Senate seat. Under the state constitution, the appointee must stand in the next general election, which is in 2010. Whoever wins must run again in 2012 when Clinton's term ends. Each race is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars, and few names attract campaign cash like Kennedy.
"Obviously she will come out as the front-runner simply because of her ability to raise money, her name and her star power," said Rep. Michael Arcuri, a Utica Democrat who wants the next senator to be from upstate New York, or at the very least focused on the issues there.
Kennedy got a boost Tuesday from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who told the local Las Vegas television program "Face to Face" that he had already called Paterson and told him he liked her for the seat.