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.
"I think it would be a tremendous thing," Reid said. "I think Caroline Kennedy would be perfect."
Her ex-in-law Cuomo has played coy about whether he even wants the job. Until Kennedy's name emerged, he had been the leading contender.
If he becomes serious about his interest, it could revive memories of the bitter family feud between the Kennedys and Cuomos that erupted during his messy divorce from Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
As well-known as Kennedy is, her success in dominating the political scene this month points to the overall disorganization among New York Democrats. None of the House members trying to get the seat have been willing or able to take her on directly.
Officially, Paterson says he is absorbed with the state's fiscal crisis and won't announce his decision until Clinton is confirmed, likely in January or February.
The governor's most extensive comments to date came about a week ago, as Kennedy was being blasted on some blogs as too inexperienced for the job.
He said his choice "would be a person who offers more hope, necessarily, than history and a greater imagination than experience to try to achieve those goals."
Lacking a strong challenger to box her out, the 51-year-old Kennedy is already crafting the sort of political friendships that will make it hard for the governor to say no.
She spent the day making calls to various elected officials and union leaders, trying to shore up support and at the same time learn more about the issues important to New York state.
One of the people Kennedy called Monday was Kelli Conlin, president of the abortion rights group New York NARAL.
"I really do see her as someone who could take up the mantle that Hillary has sort of started in terms of commitment to reproductive health care," Conlin said.
Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 vice presidential candidate and a staunch Clinton supporter, said she had urged Paterson to appoint one of the state's Democratic congresswomen to the seat but was open to Kennedy taking the job.
"She's a terrific young woman who's done a lot working with the city," Ferraro said. "I'm still inclined to think a member of Congress would be best because they could really hit the ground running. But if Caroline Kennedy gets the appointment I'm perfectly happy with that."