Many politicians regard the pressing of flesh in banks and bowling alleys, the lunches with ward pols in fake-paneled diners, as the tacky inevitability of campaign life. Kennedys act deprived without them. One recent gray, bitterly cold day, as Joseph Kennedy II, 33, moved like a human bulldozer through the streets and supermarkets, the Dunkin' Donuts and delis of Cambridge, Mass., aides called timeout for lunch. Joe reluctantly knocked off his last "How are you? Can I get a vote?," gulped down a Coke and a slice of pecan pie, and pleaded, "Aren't there any bingo games or somewhere we can go?"

Meanwhile, down in Maryland's Baltimore County, his sister Kathleen, older by a year, eagerly munched crabmeat sandwiches and shmoozed with about 50 silver-haired women who called themselves "girls" and "diehard Democrats."

A new generation of Kennedys is off and running. And, like that of a Long in Louisiana, a Byrd in Virginia or a Rockefeller anywhere, their presence in a congressional race automatically changes the political dynamic. Hindsight and gossip may have tarnished Camelot's glitter over the years, but the Kennedys remain the nation's most electric political dynasty, both passionately loved and fiercely hated by millions. While other congressional candidates scramble for voter attention and local press coverage, the eldest children of Robert F. Kennedy trigger instant opinions and global media. Time, Life and Newsweek track them. Requests for interviews come from Australia and France.

If both win, they would be the first brother-and-sister team on Capitol Hill. Joe has the easier of the two races as front-runner in a pack of more than a dozen running for Massachusetts' 8th Congressional District seat. Voters there haven't had to think about electing anybody for 34 years, ever since they crowned Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. in 1952. That year, the now retiring House speaker replaced Joe's uncle, John F. Kennedy, who moved on up to the Senate. It was the year Joe Kennedy was born. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, on the other hand, faces Helen Delich Bentley, a tough-talking Republican incumbent. The conservative congresswoman from Baltimore County kisses off Townsend with "If she wasn't a Kennedy, she wouldn't be running. I'm running on my name and 40 years of service in this area."

The Style

They look nothing alike. Joe, curly blond, blue eyed, 6 feet 2 and 175 pounds, looks more like a younger version of his Uncle Ted than his shorter, skinnier father. On stage all his life, he has long ceased to notice the photographers who record his every move. The smile breaks constantly and comfortably across a broad face. When he says "Hi, I'm Joe Kennedy," there is instant recognition.

Kathleen, dark haired and slim, with brown eyes behind thick glasses, exudes more intensity than charisma. Her preoccupation with issues and ideas supersedes any with glamor; her suits are more serviceable than stylish.

Joe's Cambridge "town and gown" district is heavily Democratic but very diverse -- from the ultraliberals of Harvard Square to the working-class wards of Somerville. The candidates are already on the run, pleading with voters -- who can't begin to think of issues or the September primary -- to at least remember their names.

Some in the academic community resent Kennedy's presence. One woman at a campaign coffee told state Rep. Tom Vallely, one of his opponents, "I think it's a darn shame not only for you, but for all those others who have worked their way up the hard way, in state politics."

But if the Camelot coattails are frayed in other parts of the country, Kennedy worshiping remains an enduring political pastime here. In an East Cambridge deli, waitress Ethel Graustein grabbed Joe, enthusing: "I waited on your dad. And Jack! I'll never forget one day in Harvard Square, I shook his hand." She seemed almost insulted that someone would ask if she would vote for Joe. "Are you kidding? I always vote for the Kennedys. They're like family. They're rich but they know all about us lower-class people."

It was much the same everywhere during the day. Kennedy moved with great energy, didn't forget the dishwashers in the kitchen -- who happened to be Haitians who can't vote -- or the teller at the bank. Standing in line at an East Cambridge bank, John Losh said it all counts. "Who you gonna vote for, someone you've never seen?" What about trading on the Kennedy name? "So what? Since when has that been outlawed? Besides, he did that oil energy business on his own."

In the supermarket, lipstick on the side of his mouth from a kiss, Joe greeted women who beamed: "You're all grown up!" "Oh, you're Joe! Oh my God!"

"Can I count on you in September?" he asked with a grin.

A woman said she was 76. "Comeonnn!" Kennedy joshed. "Not a young girl like you!" A woman standing, waiting her turn, said, "Boy, does he have the moxie."

If what politicians call "the character issue" has cut at times against Uncle Teddy, voters seem not to hold it against the Kennedy kids. Realtor Patrick Rao said, "There seems to be a new breed in the family, the second generation, except for David. I think they saw something they shouldn't do that the other generation did. Women, for instance. I think they've learned from these things."

In Baltimore County a woman reflected the same view talking about Kathleen. "She's very bright and a dedicated mother. You can't blame them all for one bad egg," she said in a pointed reference to "Teddy and Chappaquiddick."

Kathleen, sensitive to charges by Bentley fans of being a carpetbagger, downplays her famous heritage and campaigns as Kathleen Townsend, figuring everyone will know she's a Kennedy anyway. The family she pitches is more often her husband's.

"He went to public schools here for 12 years," she said in a voice still squeaky despite practice sessions that include talking with a bottle cork in her mouth to lower her pitch. "It's where his parents still live. His father was in the public school system for 40 years."

The Substance

Dear Kathleen: As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a particular responsibility to John and Joe. Be kind to others and work for your country.

Dear Joe: You have a special and particular responsibility now which I know you will fulfill. Remember all the things that Jack started -- be kind to others that are less fortunate than we -- and love our country.

Robert Kennedy penned these messages to his two oldest children on the day John F. Kennedy was buried.

While critics see an arrogance in the younger Kennedys' sense of noblesse oblige, others see a dedication to service quite unmatched by their comparably wealthy contemporaries.

Kathleen, often dubbed the best and the brightest of Robert's clan, is unquestionably keeper of the flame. She was a child of the '60s, 16 years old in 1968, a time when liberalism was at its zenith. The father she idolized seemed on his way to unifying the disparate parts of the Democratic Party, and then in one awful moment lay dying on the kitchen floor of a California hotel.

Last year, Kathleen traveled to South Africa with her Uncle Ted to meet with antiapartheid leaders Desmond Tutu and Winnie Mandela. "My father had gone there in 1966 and given a speech. Everybody remembered it -- people could quote from it!" said Kathleen in a whisper of awe. "And then Winnie Mandela said, 'We always had a friend in the Kennedys and if they were still in control this terrible tragedy would not occur. You were our greatest hope.'

"Oh, I have just heard this so often all over the world," Townsend said. "In Africa they once wanted to follow what we had in the United States."

Townsend was an honors graduate of Harvard and went with her professor husband to the University of New Mexico, where she got her law degree and was editor of the law review. Back in Boston she clerked for a federal district judge and worked in the governor's office on human resources.

In these early days of her campaign, her main pitch is to rejuvenate America by inculcating a sense of service.

"You know what I'm counting on?" she said. "That the 'Me Generation' has run itself out, that people care in a way they didn't 10 years ago."

For all her earnestness, she has combined her lofty message with little of the meat and potatoes issues of larger concern to the thousands in her district laid off by Bethlehem Steel.

"I've worked on programs that offer us great hope for giving us the strength and character and the devotion to our country that is needed if we're going to deal with the most difficult problems of our time," she said. She usually cites a police program she helped develop for the Massachusetts governor's office, "whereby students would get four years of college tuition in return for working as police officers for three years. It would allow young people to go to college without being indebted forever and give them a chance to serve their country." Asked how successful it was, Townsend said, "We were about to do a pilot project and then my husband got a job teaching at St. John's, so we left. Now Mayor [Ed] Koch is doing it in New York."

As a working mother of three daughters (Megan, 8; Maeve, 6; Kate, 2), Townsend feels "one of the major issues of our time really is how values are going to be passed on from generation to generation, and how women are going to work and be able to see their children. I don't have all the answers but it can't just be more day-care centers. The Republicans talk about how you need to strengthen the family but ignore the fact that most women work . . . We've got to start looking at this as a national concern. If a child is sick, for example, you should be able to take sick leave for that."

The Business

Seven years ago Joe Kennedy started Citizens Energy Corp. (CEC), a nonprofit company that supplies low-cost heating fuel to the elderly and poor. It has been ridiculed as "more hype than heat" by some, but gets high marks from others, even fuel oil industry executives, for succeeding in something that no one -- including the people Joe brought on board -- really thought would work.

What CEC does is buy crude oil at official prices and find refining companies that process the crude and buy all the products from it except heating oil. Instead of pocketing the profits, Kennedy (who gives himself a salary of around $60,000) subsidizes the price of heating oil and sells it to the state for one-third of the market price. Critics dispute the amount of poor and elderly CEC actually helps. Joe says, "Citizens has saved natural gas users $10 million. The state uses a figure that would indicate that we helped 2,000 families a year. If you just divided 2,000 into the number of gallons we provided it would come to about 1,500 gallons apiece! I never heard of a family in Massachusetts using as much as 1,500 gallons of heating oil a year, but if they want to use that, fine. If you want to use a hundred gallons then we serve about 30,000. And when we started there was no fuel assistance program."

Joe's competitors in the congressional race were pretty steamed when they saw his huge billboards that read "No one should be left out in the cold," with his name. (CEC says they have used the billboards every winter and instructed the advertising company to paste over Joe's name this year.)

CEC has started several other companies, including two conservation companies that have renovated low-income housing, schools and hospitals. Joe laughs at his critics. "At some point we'd like to think we did something other than just get publicity."

The same restlessness, risk taking and tenacity that made Kennedy a successful entrepreneur served him ill in school. One scathing columnist in the Boston Herald, Howard Carr, questioned whether Joe graduated from high school at all, accusing the candidate of having attended a school for "rich dummies."

Over lunch, fueling his 20-hour day with junk food (three Cokes, a hamburger and chili with melted cheese), Kennedy shrugs.

"That's Howie. That's how all of his articles are," he says in a give-me-a-break voice. "So what am I going to do? Run around showing everyone my high school diploma? From there I went to MIT." After two years he went to the University of California at Berkeley briefly and then ended up at the University of Massachusetts. He was 15 when his father was assassinated. After that, friends say, Joe was "at odds" with school. Always ambivalent about his famous name, he recognized its advantages but longed for the anonymity he could never have. When a Jeep he was driving as a teen-ager overturned, crippling one of the passengers for life, he was charged with negligence and saw the story circulated worldwide.

Although there are old family stalwarts advising Joe (Dick Goodwin) and Kathleen (Frank Mankiewicz), some of the old guard do not remember Joe fondly from Ted Kennedy's 1980 campaign. He had a trigger-temper combativeness that even led to a shoving match with one aide in Maine.

Friends say Kennedy has matured and gained his own confidence with the success of CEC.

Not introspective, Kennedy seems uncomfortable with questions about motivation and legacies. "I don't feel I have to. That's just what I get a kick out of. I don't know what made me the way I am. I just do what seems the next logical step."

His challengers snipe at Kennedy as inexperienced in the ways of government and feel his business experiences do not have the applicability he is trying to sell in this election.

Kennedy enthusiastically says, however, "I think there is a way to have the government make money!"

"In 1978," he says, "a little tiny studio apartment cost the federal government $100,000. That wasn't a program for the elderly -- that was a program for real estate developers! I can go to any bank and borrow $100,000; then you leverage it eight, nine, 10 times, which is what everybody does in the real estate business all the time. Then you put the contract out to bid and you find abandoned houses or you find vacant lots. There are 20,000 vacant lots in the city of Boston. So you go to the city with the [leveraged money] and say, 'Hey, I'll build an apartment complex.' You can get plenty of builders to build you a two-, three-bedroom unit for 60,000 or 70,000 bucks. So what used to cost $100,000 for a studio apartment, now you've got 15 two- or three-bedroom housing units. Right?"

He talks fast, the numbers flow, the arm goes out in the air and presto, it's all done. At least in Joe's mind.

"So people say, 'Yeah, Joe, that's great, but it sounds like you should stay in business.' " He laughs. "In the first place, none of the bureaucrats listen to me anyway, which is why I get frustrated and say the bureaucracy is like a ball of molasses. But what you could do [as a congressman] is go back to this district and get a lot of these ideas off and running because you have a little more power in Washington, right? Then you can start to show people what can be done."

The Family

Both Joe and Kathleen say one of their biggest concerns in campaigning is being away from their children (Joe has 5-year-old twins). "I have to make sure that I see my chldren," says Kathleen. "I talked to other children of political families, and this one guy said his father wasn't home for dinner three months in a row. He was so mad at his father. That wasn't true for me growing up. Luckily I've got a role model. My father did make sure he spent enough time with us."

The ease with which Joe and Kathleen respond to political questions shifts abruptly when they are asked how they cope with the tragedies in their lives. An invisible shield comes down at the mention of their brother David, who died last summer from a drug overdose. Or the loss of their father.

Joe squirms and almost pleadingly says, "That's private. That's family." He stops and starts, then says, "Anyone who has lost a mother or father . . ." His voice trails off. "It's tough. There are just so many times you wish he was around. To talk to, to get some advice from. In a funny way you find" (long pause) "somehow or other, he's still around."

Scandal sheet accounts of Robert's and John Kennedy's relationship with Marilyn Monroe are quietly dismissed by Kathleen. "I don't pay any attention to it. I basically don't believe any of that stuff."

She is quick to say, "I really don't like the idea of complaining. We've been so lucky in so many ways. I mean so lucky." In what ways? "In having a great father! To have parents who care about the country and want to do something about it. That's an extraordinary gift. I credit my mother with keeping us all together, making sure we stay in touch." Asking her how she copes with such a public life is "like asking a frog how can you live in a pond? I mean, the pond is all they know! From the day I can remember there was always press around. Since I've become a Townsend I've had sort of a great luxury of privacy."

Both Kathleen and Joe seem to have sought adventure. Joe has been an impulsive, high-rolling risk taker in business. Kathleen climbed the Matterhorn and built a raft and sailed it down the Mississippi with her husband. Because she is a Kennedy, the fact that her husband David delivered their second child at home made news.

For all the perks and privileges of being Kennedys, says one friend, "These kids have lived very tough lives and are really strong."

Kathleen spoke to the hate that was directed at Ted Kennedy during the 1980 campaign. "I always think they hated my father more. For his work in human rights, his being 'ruthless.' I mean I've read some of these articles about him." She stops abruptly, cutting off her thoughts.

Her brother says he has never gotten used to that visceral hate. "Ohhhhhh no. I feel it. I know it's there. There's just nothing I can do about it. You've got to say 'that's them' and 'this is me,' and hopefully enough people out there will listen."

Joe Kennedy, the candidate, says, "You just try to make it [being a Kennedy] as much of an asset as you possibly can."