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Kennedy missteps might not trip her up

Caroline Kennedy's missteps and halting speech patterns have been replayed endlessly since she announced her bid to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the U.S. Senate.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Caroline Kennedy's missteps and halting speech patterns have been replayed endlessly since she announced her bid to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the U.S. Senate.

News articles nationwide, editorials and endless political blogs called her not ready for prime time, a valley girl for her diction, and worst of all for a Democrat of perfect pedigree, the next Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee who was criticized for displaying flash but little substance.

The print stories, TV news clips and blogs that counted Kennedy's use of "you know" and "um" during a series of interviews the weekend after Christmas took a toll even among a public where those speech patterns are common.

None of it may matter.

That's because she's playing to just one voter — the Democratic governor with the power of appointment — who has plenty of reasons to pick President John F. Kennedy's daughter.

As governor and head of the Democratic Party in the state, Paterson has said he will take advice from his closest advisers in and outside government, including other elected and party officials. But he has also said that the decision is his alone, and that he will choose a senator who meets his requirements, including the ability to bring federal aid back to New York.

If he does name her to the seat, Kennedy will have plenty of time and millions of dollars to spend on TV campaign ads to redefine her public image before she goes before voters in 2010 in a special election.

Today's public opinion of Kennedy "strikes me as monumentally irrelevant," said Gerald Benjamin, professor of politics at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Benjamin said that until a few weeks ago, Kennedy was the little girl filmed playing in JFK's Oval Office.

"So a decline in her public reputation isn't measuring anything," he said. "And surely if she were to become the U.S. senator and had two years to perform in a highly visible position, these measures at this juncture would become inconsequential."

But her foray could also raise concern that the long-private 51-year-old lawyer and author might not be much better at dealing with the public by the time the 2010 campaign begins.

Despite the Democrats' nearly 2-to-1 voter advantage, a strong contender will be needed against a Republican such as Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican who has already expressed his interest in the seat. The Democrats also want a strong 2010 ticket that could face a GOP lineup led by Rudy Giuliani for governor.

In her favor: star power, fundraising ability, her appeal to voters who have fond memories of Camelot and perhaps influence in the administration of President-elect Barack Obama, who got his own boost from Kennedy's early endorsement. Paterson has already petitioned Obama's transition team for federal money to help the state weather the economic slide.

"What do you lose?" Benjamin said of a Kennedy pick. "You get some people who wanted it who won't get it and you get people like me who are grumpy about anointing members of a royal family."

Governors generally don't let headlines influence such major appointments much, said David Catalfamo, former communications director for Republican Gov. George Pataki.

"Speculation sells newspapers, that's all," Catalfamo said.

Among the speculation is how much Paterson might want to please Sen. Edward Kennedy, Caroline's uncle and a Democratic Party icon, who is suffering from brain cancer even as he carries on the tradition of having a Kennedy in the Senate since JFK was first elected in 1952.

As for Paterson, he is acting increasingly miffed at the constant news attention over the decision. He has repeatedly said he won't announce a successor to Clinton until she is confirmed as secretary of state, which could take several weeks. He also said he hasn't yet interviewed Kennedy, something he plans to do with all the applicants.

"We have a rumor every day now," he said to reporters Friday, denying that his decision was imminent. "It's unbelievable."