With Kennedy’s Hands Tied, Others Do the Talking for (and Against) Her

At a cocktail party attended by Democratic elected officials and operatives on the evening of December 18 at Josie Wood’s Pub on Waverly Place, political consultant Joseph Mercurio was enjoying a glass of merlot when a former associate and supporter of Andrew Cuomo approached to make some small talk. Before long, the discussion turned to Caroline Kennedy.

"She’s like Sarah Palin," said the attorney general’s former associate, according to Mr. Mercurio.

A few minutes later, a staffer to Carolyn Maloney came over to make the case for the Upper East Side representative, telling Mr. Mercurio, "She should be the choice."

"It’s on a lot of people’s minds," said Mr. Mercurio.

The rollout of Ms. Kennedy as a candidate to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate is now complete, and her powerful consultants and high-wattage supporters in City Hall, the Senate and beyond have succeeded in making her Topic A in political conversations across the state. The pros and cons are now firmly established: her closeness to Barack Obama versus her lack of a public record, her ability to raise money and deliver Catholic votes versus the undemocratic whiff of dynasty.

But in the absence of any reliable metric, there’s still little consensus about whether the professionally handled unveiling of Candidate Kennedy has presented a flattering picture to Governor David Paterson, who is, after all, the only critic who matters.

Some political observers look at the mounting skepticism in the press as evidence of a botched campaign that put all its emphasis on lining up elite support to pressure Mr. Paterson. But people involved in the effort to win the appointment say the seeming missteps are a result of having to run a campaign that isn’t actually allowed to be one.

"I know it looks messy on the outside, but there is an incredibly fine line to walk between it being a campaign and it not being a campaign," said one source involved in the effort to win the appointment for Ms. Kennedy. “You don’t want to in any way box the governor in, and yet you have to be out there."

That means that Ms. Kennedy’s consulting firm, Knickerbocker SKD, cannot drive a traditional campaign message, or have her deliver an important speech articulating her mission or beliefs. Ms. Kennedy’s competition and critics are free to attack her, but her campaign cannot retaliate. She can’t meet with editorial boards, and has the impossible task of satisfying the desires of political reporters for access without appearing to court publicity.

Hence, Ms. Kennedy’s counterproductive upstate debut last week, when she infuriated reporters by refusing to answer questions from a scrum of reporters, many of whom had traveled a long way to see her.

The source involved with Ms. Kennedy’s effort acknowledged that it was a mistake not to have Ms. Kennedy speak to the press in Syracuse, and said that the tactical error was immediately recognized and addressed, pointing out that she answered questions later in Rochester and Buffalo.

But the initial reticence prompted a widespread criticism that she is being handled too preciously and has prompted the comparisons to Ms. Palin that Mr. Mercurio heard at the cocktail party. Representative Gary Ackerman, for example, one-upped an earlier comparison he had made between Ms. Kennedy and J. Lo by saying that her handlers had "Palin-ized" her.

With Kennedy’s Hands Tied, Others Do the Talking for (and Against) Her