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This isn’t her father’s Camelot

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:

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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“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.

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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.

Cuomo ran the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration; in 2002, he pulled out when he was losing a primary race to fill his father’s shoes in the governor’s mansion; but in 2006, when he was elected attorney general, he showed he could win statewide.

Which is why at least one likely GOP candidate would prefer Kennedy as an opponent. She lacks experience in government and would rally Republican donors nationwide.

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“Some mainstream Democrat with a proven record would just not attract the national media, make this a superstar race, the way Caroline Kennedy will,” said Rep. Peter T. King of Long Island. “I mean, would the L.A. Times be calling me if I was running against Kirsten Gillibrand?”

Who?

U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, graduate of Dartmouth College and UCLA law school and the daughter of two prominent attorneys from Albany, was elected in 2006 to represent a slice of upstate New York. She quickly earned a sterling reputation and proved herself adept at fundraising.

“But I’m talking about raising $30-to-40 million right off the bat just to get into a Senate race,” King said. “Can a Kirsten Gillibrand do that? Caroline Kennedy can just because of her social life all these years in New York -- she has the whole power structure behind her.”

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But King, the son of a policeman, says Kennedy herself probably doesn’t know if she’ll take to the political arena. “I have nothing against her,” King said. “I’m even surprised at the resentment of Democrats taking shots at her. But these are the people schlepping back and forth to D.C. every week, fighting with reporters, fighting with special interests, getting their heads knocked in, and suddenly someone who has never gotten her nails scratched gets anointed.”

The joke in the U.S. Capitol this week is that a primal scream echoing through the hallways is from the senior senator from New York, Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat with a voracious appetite for attention even by the self-promotional standards of Washington. He was first overshadowed when the former president’s wife waltzed in to New York to win her Senate seat in 2000. And now he may again be eclipsed by the supernova of the 51-year-old Kennedy, even though it’s unclear, as one graybeard of New York politics put it, whether “she can cut the mustard.”

This is a woman who long avoided the public -- a seemingly shy princess of Camelot who moved with her reclusive mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and younger brother, John Jr., to Manhattan’s Upper East Side a year after her father, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. She later graduated from Radcliffe College at Harvard University and Columbia Law School; she married Edwin Schlossberg but never officially changed her name. She wrote and edited books and became a fixture not only at the openings of the American Ballet Theatre but also on the walk to school with her daughters and at her son’s basketball scrimmages in sweaty public school gyms.

Kennedy has always been close to Uncle Ted, the iconic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy from Massachusetts, who walked her down the aisle and whom she reportedly speaks to several times a week.

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But she only began stepping out as a high-profile political surrogate earlier this year after delivering a timely endorsement of Obama over Clinton.

“She always asked campaign staff on the ground how she could make the most out of her appearances, and apparently she did,” said Joel Benenson, a former New York political writer and the lead pollster for the Obama campaign.

Robert Shrum, a Democratic strategist close to the Kennedy family for decades, said Caroline Kennedy needed to get her children launched (two of the three are in college) before she was ready to move into a more public chapter of her life.

Citing her inherent intelligence and leadership at the Harvard University Institute of Politics and John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, Shrum said: “She’d be a terrific senator. Caroline has always been interested in politics and public life.”

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Still, it is one thing for Kennedy to be treated as an admired flower under glass and quite another to be the target of pesky political observers and covetous rivals.

Despite the collective swooning over Kennedy this week, it’s far from certain that she is a shoo-in to become the next senator from New York. (More back story: Her uncle Bobby, who was also assassinated, once had the same job.)

A source close to Paterson said the governor won’t be bulldozed into a decision.

“Once the Kennedy name got out there, that kind of prompted an understandable craze,” said the source, who did not want to be identified when discussing Paterson’s private deliberations. The source said that Paterson continued to weigh things, but that “the playing field is still pretty level.”

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The family feud and the saga continue, though word has it that the younger Cuomo might not have the killer instinct when it comes to Caroline, his former in-law.

Then again, this is politics.

In New York.

A whole different ballgame.

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geraldine.baum@latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com


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