With Barack Obama's bid for the White House, the torch has been passed to a new generation in more ways than one: For the first time, the best-known Kennedy on the presidential campaign trail is named Caroline.
As Sen. Edward Kennedy, the patriarch of the nation's most famous Democratic family, battles brain cancer out of the public eye, his niece is emerging as a political player in her own right.
Caroline Kennedy's role as a surrogate for Obama and adviser to him on choosing a running mate raises the intriguing possibility that the only surviving child of President John F. Kennedy is taking an unexpected step into the family business.
Kennedy's bold political moves this year represent a significant departure for an author and philanthropist who has spent most of her life trying to duck the spotlight that has followed her since her tragically interrupted White House childhood. Today, Kennedy is a 50-year-old mother of three.
Friends are convinced recent events represent more than a brief interruption in Kennedy's private Park Avenue lifestyle.
"From my perspective, the most revealing thing about her endorsement of Obama is that it demonstrates she's not at all withdrawing from a legacy that comes from her father," says John Seigenthaler, a retired newspaper editor who sits with Kennedy on the panel that bestows the annual Profile in Courage Award in honor of her father.
"It's a different frontier that she's crossed here," says Seigenthaler, who worked for Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., her late uncle, and later was editorial page editor of USA TODAY.
Another family friend, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also sees Kennedy's newly raised profile as politically significant.
"It's a big statement," says Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. "She has credibility because she hasn't been out there."
Kennedy declined to be interviewed for this story, but friends say they're seeing a newly politicized Caroline. "I've known her for 20 years and I've never seen her so interested and excited," says Greg Craig, a former attorney for President Clinton who now works for Obama.
But friends differ as to whether Kennedy's heightened profile signals the birth of a political star.
"I don't think she'd go that far," Theodore Sorenson, her father's former speechwriter, says when asked whether Kennedy might run for office one day.
"I could see it," counters Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat whose district includes the Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port. "It's clear that Sen. Obama has great confidence in her and respects her."
In an interview with USA TODAY earlier this month, Obama said Kennedy would "add good perspective" to his running mate search.
"She's one of the smartest, most engaging, wise people I know," the presumptive Democratic nominee said. "She has become a very dear friend. I trust her."
Assessing her credentials
As the daughter of a legendary president, Kennedy could help Obama with female voters who hoped New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the first of their gender to become a major party's presidential nominee. Many of Clinton's staunchest female backers are of a generation that recalls Kennedy as an endearing toddler who brought a pony named Macaroni to the White House.