Debbie Walsh, director for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, thinks Kennedy's gender is less important than "the mystique" of her name. "I don't think she's highly identified with women," Walsh says of Kennedy. "That's not what people think of when they think of her. They think of the Kennedys, and especially President Kennedy."
Kennedy's mystique is evident in the kid-gloves treatment she has received from Republicans.
The other two members of Obama's vice presidential search committee — former Fannie Mae chairman Jim Johnson and former deputy attorney general Eric Holder — came under immediate fire from the Republican National Committee.
Johnson quit the Obama campaign after charges surfaced that he got a sweetheart loan from Countrywide Financial, a subprime lender under investigation by Congress and the Justice Department.
The Republican National Committee continues to blast Holder for not stopping President Clinton's controversial 2005 pardon of Marc Rich, a financier who was on the lam from tax evasion charges. Rich's ex-wife, Denise, raised millions for Democratic campaigns.
The Republican Party has leveled no such organized attack on Kennedy. But one GOP strategist, Keith Appell, questioned her credentials for the vice presidential search.
"How is she in any way qualified to select the person who will be one heartbeat away from the Oval Office?" he asked.
Defenders say Kennedy's accomplishments are underestimated because she's never gone out of her way to publicize them. "She's really almost shy," says Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City school system. He credits her with helping to raise $350 million for public schools.
Kennedy graduated from Harvard University and earned a law degree at Columbia University. She has helped write or edit seven books, including two on legal topics with a law school classmate, and several anthologies of her mother's favorite literature.
Her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, is an artist and designer whose firm has created interactive exhibit space for Time Warner, the Brooklyn Museum and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
They have three children: Rose, 20; Tatiana, 18; and Jack, 15.
Since the death of her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in 1994, and the plane crash in 1999 that killed her younger brother, John, Kennedy has become a civic leader in New York.
She is the honorary chairwoman of the American Ballet Theatre, following in her mother's footsteps. Kennedy loaned her name to an exhibit of her mother's fabled wardrobe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She also hosts the annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, a nationally televised gala honoring achievement in the performing arts.
"Gradually, she's gotten more and more active," Sorenson says.
Taking up the mantle
Sorenson, 80, began campaigning for Obama early in 2007. He says he set up a meeting between the Illinois senator and Kennedy after a chance encounter with her in New York City last year. "She said her kids were all for Obama and she and they would love to meet him sometime," Sorenson recalls.
Until this year, Kennedy has limited her political activities to the family circle or close connections. Along with other members of her family, she made an appearance on the podium of the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
Four years later, she campaigned alongside Kerry's daughters, but not until he had secured the nomination.