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Kennedy clan passes the torch to JFK's daughter

Caroline Kennedy urged to contest the New York Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton

The torch of the "first family" of American politics, the Kennedys, may be about to pass to Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the assassinated JFK, who has emerged as the leading contender for the Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton.

The 51-year-old lawyer and author had shown so little interest in formal politics that it had seemed the Kennedys' influence on the national scene would fade with Ted Kennedy, the "lion of the Senate", who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier this year. And Ms Kennedy's own sensational endorsement of Barack Obama for the presidency – which ripped the sense of inevitability from the Hillary Clinton campaign in the spring – had been seen as entrusting the legacy of her father to a new name.

Except that Ms Kennedy then threw herself into campaigning for Mr Obama, traversing the country to pep up volunteers and winning rave reviews for her oratory – all despite a reputation for being painfully shy.

She was later seconded to the panel advising on Mr Obama's vice-presidential selection. Now she has begun considering whether to press for appointment to the New York Senate seat once held by her uncle, Robert F Kennedy.

David Paterson, the state governor, will have to make the selection if Mrs Clinton is confirmed as Secretary of State in the new year, and he and Ms Kennedy had an "informational" conversation on the subject last week, it has emerged. Whoever he appoints will serve until the next round of elections in 2010, and would have to stand again for a full term in 2012.

"I know she's interested," her cousin, Robert Kennedy Jr, said. "She spent a lot of her life balancing public service with family obligations. Now her children are grown, and she is ready to move on to a bigger stage."

Mr Kennedy ruled himself out of contention earlier in the week, and said he and other members of the clan were enthusiastically pushing for her appointment. "She's probably one of the leading advocates in the nation on public education," he said. "She feels a lot of the issues she's worked on are in danger of being shunted aside because of the economic crisis."

Ms Kennedy is easily the most famous of the possible contenders for the seat, where women's groups have already begun pressing the Governor to appoint a woman to continue the advocacy work of Mrs Clinton.

While the Kennedy stardust is sprinkled throughout US politics and philanthropy, Ms Kennedy holds a particularly potent position, since she is the one surviving child of President John F Kennedy. She was five days short of her sixth birthday when her father was assassinated, and herself escaped assassination by the IRA when she was studying in London. Neil Diamond wrote the song Sweet Caroline after seeing a photograph of her.

Her declaration for Mr Obama in January – writing that "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them, but for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president" – marked a debut on the national stage.