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COLUMN ONE

This isn't her father's Camelot

Don't expect other politicians to swoon just because Caroline Kennedy wants to be a senator. Hey, this is New York.

December 18, 2008|Geraldine Baum and Mark Z. Barabak

NEW YORK — Could this be an episode of "Family Feud," New York style?

The contestants: Clintons, Kennedys and Cuomos, America's most famous Democratic dynasties. The prize they're sniffing around: a U.S. Senate seat, soon to be vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

This week, Caroline Kennedy made it clear that she, like Andrew Cuomo, wants Clinton's spot after the senator ascends to secretary of State. Famously press-shy, Kennedy created a political spectacle -- part civics, part soap opera and, for its audience worldwide, utterly captivating.

But first the back story for this saga of ambition, divorce and betrayal:

Kennedy's cousin was once married to Cuomo, and it ended badly.

Kennedy and her uncle Ted once endorsed Clinton's opponent (a.k.a. Barack Obama) and, well, for Clinton that ended badly.

Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, and Cuomo's dad, former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, clashed as far back as five presidential campaigns ago -- and apparently some of that enmity still lingers.

To cite Andrew Cuomo's daughter, as quoted by her mom this week on the "Today" show: "This is very awkward."

Now to the latest chapter:

Caroline Kennedy became an instant front-runner to be the senator from New York, the hometown media has been gushing, and power brokers like New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are falling over each other to endorse her.

Some Clintonistas are gagging at Kennedy's unalloyed ambition. But Clinton sent out word Tuesday that they should put a lid on it, presumably because her new boss (a.k.a. the president-elect) is a big fan of Kennedy, and because Clinton has Senate confirmation hearings ahead and doesn't need anyone smudging her image.

As for the voters, frankly, until the next election in 2010 they're irrelevant.

For now, only one voter counts -- and he is New York Gov. David Paterson, another dynastic politician, whose father, Basil, was once a major power in New York politics.

Paterson gets to pick Clinton's successor knowing that person's name will appear above his on the ballot when he asks voters, for the first time, to elect him governor. (He was Eliot Spitzer's lieutenant before Spitzer quit after being busted for consorting with prostitutes.)

"As we always say, politics in New York is a different ballgame," said pollster Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, adding, "Illinois may be making headlines, but it's still the Second City."

New Yorkers have a thing for political celebrities.

When Andrew Cuomo, New York's attorney general, was the only marquee name on the short list to succeed Clinton, a Marist poll showed that he had 45% of the public's support, with contenders like the mayor of Buffalo and a congressman from Long Island trailing far behind.

But even amid Clintons, Cuomos and Patersons (and before that, Moynihans and Buckleys), one name seems to trump them all. And it's not Trump. It's Kennedy.

Before she expressed interest in the Senate seat, Kennedy, who has never held public office, tied with Cuomo in yet another Marist poll as someone who could also do the job. Kennedy and Cuomo each earned 25% of the public's support, and the rest of the gang stayed far back in single digits.

But really, this race to win Paterson's favor is not about fame alone. The governor -- already dealing with a $15-billion budget gap on top of all this -- has to weigh a web of parochial considerations promoted by clamoring special interests who want: A woman! A Latino! An Upstater!

"David Paterson is now the undisputed heavyweight champion of no-win situations," said Democratic political analyst Dan Gerstein.

Kennedy -- who lives in a Park Avenue ZIP Code where the mail is sorted and hand-delivered by doormen -- now has to prove she has the appetite to mix in with apple farmers and union chiefs, and to maneuver in the clubby male-dominated atmosphere of the U.S. Senate. On Wednesday, she made her first foray as a would-be senator, drawing a press mob as she met with the mayors of Syracuse and Rochester.

For his part, Cuomo has to decide whether he really wants the job. If he were to back off now, it would make it easier for Paterson to pick Kennedy, who if nothing else is a proven fundraiser after collecting $65 million from private donors to help New York City schools.

Cuomo has been uncharacteristically quiet this week.

Like Sen. Clinton, Cuomo has successfully moved beyond criticism that he got where he is through nepotism.

"As much as [Cuomo's] rubbed some people the wrong way, his approval as attorney general is through the roof, and he's the only one with a real record of accomplishment in Washington," said Gerstein, who nevertheless suggested Kennedy would also be a wise pick.

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