How much clout would a Sen. Caroline Kennedy have?

NEW YORK (AP) -- As the governor considers a replacement for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Caroline Kennedy has spoken repeatedly of her "relationships" in Washington and her desire to use them on New York's behalf.

Certainly, the 51-year-old political neophyte has some powerful connections, including a special relationship with President-elect Barack Obama, an uncle who is a dean of the Senate, and acquaintances who can help her raise tens of millions of dollars.

But with New York in a desperate scramble for federal funds amid an economic meltdown, it is unclear how much clout Kennedy would actually wield as a freshman senator in a place with rigid seniority rules.

"Frankly, when it comes to getting things done for one's state, it's more a matter of hard work than connections," said Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution congressional scholar.

Still, on Capitol Hill, relationships matter.

Already, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has spoken publicly in Kennedy's favor. And Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told The New York Times on Wednesday that she would be thrilled to have Kennedy on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Boxer heads.

"So much of politics is personal," said former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. "Liking somebody matters."

Many observers agree that Obama owes Kennedy for delivering a key endorsement at a vital moment in his primary campaign. She became a familiar face on the Obama campaign trail and was one of just three people picked to head his vice-presidential search.

Asked last month on "Meet the Press" whether Kennedy should be appointed to the Senate, Obama called her "one of my dearest friends" but added that he was staying out of New York politics.

Early endorsements, when supporters put the most at risk, are often expected to reap the biggest rewards later on. But there is no simple equation, and no fixed prize. Sen. John Kerry endorsed Obama even earlier than Kennedy, but this week he presided over Clinton's confirmation hearing for secretary of state - a job he reportedly wanted.

As a senator, Kennedy would almost certainly have an easier time getting calls in to Obama than some of her colleagues, Mann said.

But, he added, Kennedy is unlikely to ask for presidential intervention on local funding and other matters solely benefiting New York. Doing that "would diminish her appeal with Obama and others who are working on big-time problems," Mann said.

Instead, she is likely to use her "in" with the White House to gain prominence on national issues - something that could build her standing in the Senate and indirectly help New York.

An even stronger connection is her relationship to her uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy, with his decades of experience on Capitol Hill.

Caroline Kennedy is close to her uncle - he gave her away at her wedding and, last year, she rushed to his bedside when he was stricken by brain cancer - and he has reportedly been working the phones on her behalf to help secure the Senate seat.

The good will the elder Kennedy has built with his colleagues over the years would almost certainly rub off on his niece, said former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. "They are going to embrace her warmly" if she is selected, he said.

Michele Swers, a Georgetown University professor of American government, agreed. "If he would take her under his wing, that might help her in terms of getting on big policies earlier, and getting things that she wants included on committee bills more than she might normally get as a freshman senator," she said.

Aside from his own expertise on Senate intricacies, the senator also could provide his niece with access to his staff, widely considered one of the most expert and effective in Congress.

He has a long-standing practice of personally supplementing the salaries of senior staffers who could be making more money outside government. That is something Caroline Kennedy could easily afford to continue if any of them were to come to work for her. In talking up her connections, Caroline Kennedy's friends often cite the millions of dollars she brought in as a fundraiser for New York schools and other causes. It is a network that would prove useful to a junior Sen. Kennedy, who would have to immediately mount a campaign for a 2010 election and, if she succeeds, another in 2012.

Another asset - albeit a fickle one - is the spotlight likely to be shone on her by the press, Swers said.

"The more the media has interest in her, the more other senators will want to co-sponsor bills with her, sign on to initiatives with her so that they get attention to their policy preferences," she said.

And even Caroline Kennedy's Senate colleagues wouldn't be immune to her star power, said Kerrey, who remains friends with her uncle but said he has not endorsed anyone for Clinton's seat.

"There's a historic magicness about Caroline Kennedy," Kerrey said. "Almost all of them remember her, know her, watched her grow up, know her story, admire the dignity and poise that she's shown over the course of a life, you know, that's been full of tragedy and loss."

The same degree of attention is unlikely to follow the other candidates being considered for Clinton's seat - although a number of them have their own roster of Washington relationships built during years working in the nation's capital.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was housing secretary under President Bill Clinton. And Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Steve Israel, Jerrold Nadler, Kirsten Gillibrand and Brian Higgins have been building connections as members of Congress.

Ultimately the appointment rests with Democratic Gov. David Paterson, who has said he does not want to make an announcement before Obama's inauguration.

Several political observers have questioned the wisdom of using Caroline Kennedy's relationships as an argument for her appointment, wondering if it bolsters critics who believe she is inexperienced, unqualified and getting special treatment because of her name.

"If I were Caroline Kennedy, I'd play down the connections and play up the more personal skills," Mann said. "I think the whole notion of connections is something that's not particularly appealing. It somehow suggests some special advantage."

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