It was October 1986 and on a side street in a blue-collar neighborhood just outside Baltimore, a skinny, disheveled woman in a dress and running shoes was leaping bushes and bounding off porches as she frenetically bounced from house to house seeking votes in her bid for the United States Congress.

A gaggle of youthful volunteers trailed, sweating and panting and trying to keep up as Kathleen Townsend literally ran for office. Children wheeled their bikes behind her, dogs barked and neighbors turned out on their sidewalks to catch a glimpse of this curious sight.

They saw an unpolished candidate, with hapless hair, her slip showing, her face unadorned with makeup. What's more, Townsend was an upstart. She had moved to Maryland only two years before and had surprised the state's Democratic establishment by challenging the strong Republican incumbent, Helen Delich Bentley, a salty former maritime reporter finishing her first term.

So Townsend, 35 and seeking political office for the first time in her life, had a lot to prove. The sneakers were partly gimmick, a way to attract attention. But Townsend wasn't having any trouble in that regard. Already the "Today" show had featured her; so had Canadian television, Vogue, People and the New York Times. But the reporters cared less about the sneakers than they did about Townsend's maiden name, which is Kennedy.

The new generation had arrived! The torch was being passed! The legacy lived on! It was a predictable story, dripping with the celebrity that surrounds America's most famous family.

Yet for all of the supposed familial political savvy, it was really a Mickey Rooney-style, come-on-kids, let's-throw-a-campaign-together operation. Townsend's main fund-raiser had never raised money before. Her campaign manager had never managed a campaign before. She proposed a national service program that was interpreted as a proposal to draft everyone and created an uproar.

And the campaign seemed unsure what to do with the Kennedy connection. Her siblings and other family members campaigned and raised money for her, yet her red, white and blue bumper stickers read only "Kathleen Townsend for Congress." And Townsend, beginning her campaign, told a reporter, "It's important to run as my own person."

But without the Kennedy name, she was just another first-time candidate, an unknown Democrat in a suburban district steadily turning Republican. Kathleen Townsend crashed and burned; Bentley trounced her by 18 percentage points. It was the first time a member of the Kennedy family had lost a general election.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend would not make the same mistake again.

Flash forward 13 years. A crowd of 3,000 has come to fete Townsend, now Maryland's lieutenant governor, at her 48th-birthday-party-cum-fund-raiser at the Baltimore Zoo. The governor lauds her, so do the state's two U.S. senators and a congressman. And with a huge smile -- that famous Kennedy smile -- and her maiden name now firmly part of her public persona, Townsend happily basks in her new status: a politician with two statewide elections under her belt and an even bigger prize -- the governorship in 2002 -- comfortably within her sights.

Townsend's ascendance since her inauspicious 1986 start has surprised many here. With a curious mix of an earnest do-goodism, personal ambition, self-improvement, solid accomplishments and Kennedy pedigree, Townsend has gone from lightweight to front-runner. She has her share of doubters, certainly, who say she can be goofy at times and too intense. But they acknowledge that she is the politician to beat. Townsend has been talked about as a vice presidential possibility sometime in the future. And at a recent luncheon in Ocean City, supporters placed buttons at every place-setting: Townsend's face superimposed on Mount Rushmore with a logo reading, "What to expect in 2030."

At the same time, and equally unlikely, she has been thrust into the forefront of her generation of Kennedys, a family that has traditionally cultivated its men, not its women, for politics. She is the only woman out there among the Teddys and Bobbys and Johns and Joes (and Patrick and Mark) who have served, or are serving, in the White House, in Congress, in a statehouse. And there's no other Kennedy woman even poised to join her. Which is one reason why she is sometimes called the UnKennedy or the Different Kennedy, and it rings true.

She is also different in this way: The self-described "good" girl and oldest child of RFK, who was nearly 17 when he was killed, she has avoided the troubles that have plagued some of the men of her generation: her brother Joe's youthful car crash that paralyzed a girlfriend and the messy divorce that helped curtail his political career; brother Michael's affair with his kids' underage babysitter and then death on the ski slopes; brother David's fatal heroin overdose in a Florida hotel room; brother Bobby's own battle with heroin; cousin William Kennedy Smith's arrest and then acquittal on rape charges; and, this summer, cousin John Jr.'s death while piloting a plane at dusk to Martha's Vineyard.

As her uncle, Ted, whose own difficulties are part of American political history, puts it: "If you had a blank vote in that [RFK's] family on who had been the most responsible, Kathleen would win."

Townsend herself is uncomfortable with such intra-family comparisons. She believes her brothers and male cousins were confronted almost at birth with much heavier expectations -- and faced much more intense public scrutiny -- than she and other Kennedy women faced. "I didn't grow up with the expectations that the boys might have had. They might not have entered that [ill-fated congressional 1986] race because the expectations for them were so much higher, because if they lost that would be really terrible. But you know, I didn't have that. In my heart of hearts I wanted to win, but I think there was another part of me that understood it wouldn't be devastating," she says.

"Look, everybody has great talents. I think some of the others in my family have done such incredible things and have made such amazing contributions. They may have had other problems, but I don't want to be compared with them that way because I think they've made amazing contributions."

Indeed, Townsend never seemed that fixated on finding a place for herself as part of the Kennedy political line. She once considered the convent. In the years after her father's death, she was a surrogate parent for many of her 10 siblings, as her mother, Ethel, struggled to cope. (Ethel Kennedy declined to be interviewed for this article.) At one point, as David was sinking under the drug addiction that eventually killed him at age 28, Kathleen tried to gain custody of him -- though David fought her off.

She married a man far from her family's glitz and legacy, an unassuming intellectual who now teaches at St. John's College in Annapolis. When family friend Adam Walinsky first saw Kathleen's lanky, red-bearded intended, David Townsend, at the couple's wedding, he recalls thinking, "Boy, she got as different as she could get."

But, Walinsky says, "to the extent that anyone would have said this guy's not like a Kennedy, she would have said, `Yeah, and that's fine with me.' She's not dismissive of the family or the legacy, but she was going to do it the way she wanted to do it."

Yet, as much as she may be the UnKennedy, a Kennedy she definitely is. It's not just her looks (the toothy grin and crinkly eyes) and her grab-your-arm style with people, but her political point of view as well -- Democratic, passionate about volunteerism and community service, determined about gun control (but a proponent of the death penalty and of back-to-work welfare reform). And, of course, it's also the political levers she has learned to pull when problems arise: dusting off her maiden name after losing in 1986, using family fund-raising resources when plucked to run for lieutenant governor in 1994, and turning to the family's political fix-it men when her reelection ticket began to wobble in 1998.

Will the Kennedy connection help her become the next governor of Maryland? No one in her family has ever occupied a governor's seat; it's uncharted territory. Which seems to suit Kathleen Townsend just fine.

As a friend puts it, "She's tried to do it more on her own than on her name. The cynical rap on that is it's a more sophisticated way to trade on the name. But nobody's that smart and calculating."

Like so many kennedy stories hers begins at a sprawling family estate, the house called Hickory Hill in McLean. Townsend was born on the Fourth of July in 1951. Her childhood was spent in the by now well-known Kennedy pursuits: playing touch football on the lawn, sailing off Hyannis-port in the summer and, in her case, riding horses in national competitions.

There was a menagerie of birds and dogs and horses at Hickory Hill. Four newspapers were piled each day on the breakfast table and the news dominated all television watching. By 1961, her uncle was president and her father was attorney general, living the day's headlines during the Cuban missile crisis or going toe to toe with George Wallace and Jimmy Hoffa.

"Inevitably, whatever we discussed at the dinner table was what was going on in the country at the time," recalls Townsend's younger sister Kerry Kennedy Cuomo. "It was always fun."

Evenings, the children gathered around their parents' bed to say their prayers and listen to their father read from the Bible. When their parents left on trips, they'd challenge the children to memorize poetry to see who could recite best for them when they returned.

As the firstborn, she recalls early on the pressure she felt to do right. "That probably does come from being the oldest, absolutely. There was a great sense of responsibility growing up [then], going to Catholic schools, being my father's daughter. He was prosecuting the Teamsters, the attorney general trying to do what was right. Going to Catholic schools gives you a great sense of responsibility. You're supposed to be good. You're supposed to do the right thing."

Her father emphasized that to her even in the darkest moments. Just two days after her uncle JFK was assassinated, he wrote Kathleen, then 12: "As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren you have a particular responsibility now . . . Be kind to others and work for your country. Love Daddy."

As the oldest, she had a special bond with her father. Once, when she was 14, her horse, Attorney General, fell on her during a competition on Cape Cod, knocking her unconscious. Word reached Bobby Kennedy as he was sailing off the Cape. A Coast Guard cutter cruised out to pick him up, but the seas were too choppy for it to pull alongside. As horrified friends watched, Kennedy dove into the waves to swim to the cutter. When young Kathleen awoke from a coma three days later, the first person she saw was her father.

Townsend attended Our Lady of Victory Elementary School in Northwest Washington and stayed in Catholic schools until her junior year of high school, when she transfered to the Putney School in Vermont. Her wary father had referred to the progressive boarding school as "Potney." But in the barefoot, freewheeling atmosphere of the late 1960s, Townsend recalls, she was one of only three students to attend church each Sunday.

She was at Putney on the June night in 1968 when she received the news that Sirhan Sirhan had shot her father in a Los Angeles hotel. A month shy of her 17th birthday, she flew to his bedside and was with him when he died.

The night before the funeral, the family gathered in a New York hotel suite and listened to football player and friend Rosey Grier play "Spanish Harlem" on the piano. Later, as she and a longtime friend, Anne Coffey Proctor, lay in bed trying to sleep, Proctor, turned to Kathleen, who was grieving yet quietly calm: "Aren't you furious?" The answer from the darkness: "I just don't understand how any individual can bring themselves to bring such hurt into other people's lives."

Thirty-one years later, Townsend does not talk very often in public about her father's murder; the hurt clearly has stayed with her. She told Oprah Winfrey not long ago, "People say when someone dies the pain will eventually go away. It often doesn't."

Two years after RFK's death, attending Radcliffe College, she turned her room into a "a shrine" for her father, according to a friend, Deborah Frank, who lived down the hall from Kathleen.

At Radcliffe, Kathleen was known as "a very nice, very bright kid who was slightly out to lunch," says Frank. "She'd lock herself out and have to come in through the fire escape. She put her boots too close to the fire and they cracked. She's got a phenomenal intellect, but at that time in her life her practical intellect was not at the same level."

Townsend's affection for literature and history deepened at college. And she developed a new interest, too -- in a Harvard graduate student who was her American literature tutor. David Townsend's family background was far from the Kennedys': His father was a public school teacher and principal, his mother a secretary. He spent his undergraduate years at the Jesuit-run Loyola College in Baltimore. At first he didn't catch on when his student expressed an interest: "She said, `I think we should meet more often,' and I'd schedule more tutorials."

During the summer of 1972, after reading Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, Kennedy and Townsend and three other friends built a raft to float down the river. While part of the adventure was academic, it was also romantic. The Kennedy woman had her eye on the Townsend man, and when the trip was over, the tutor was smitten. She graduated from Radcliffe the following spring, and they were married that November.

The couple moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where David Townsend took a job teaching at the western campus of St. John's College and Kathleen wrote briefly for a local weekly newspaper, worked as an investigator for the state Human Rights Commission, dabbled in pottery and began studies at the University of New Mexico law school.

Townsend carpooled with one of her professors, Ruth Kovnat. "She always talked about how important public service was to her, and that conversation always took place in the context of what she felt her objectives were in the world," Kovnat says. "In knowing Kathleen, you can see traits that are usually associated with her father."

The Townsends' first daughter, Meaghan, was born at home in Santa Fe. The couple followed a New Mexican tradition and buried the placenta, planting a pinyon tree above it. (Two more daughters were also born at home; their last child, Kerry, was born at a Montgomery County birthing center, only because they weren't near their house when Townsend went into labor.)

The couple moved nine times in their first 10 years of marriage. David Townsend got a law degree from Yale and worked for the U.S. attorney's office in Boston, while Kathleen completed law school and went into private practice. They both worked on Ted Kennedy's failed 1980 presidential campaign. She managed her uncle's 1982 Senate reelection campaign and went on to serve as a policy aide to Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts.

After graduating from law school, Townsend also had begun to write for Washington Monthly. She criticized Democrats for abandoning religious values to the far right and touted the virtues of volunteerism. It marked the beginnings of an emerging political philosophy. Common to all her articles was a belief in a citizen's sense of service, a clear echo of the admonitions of her father.

"She is more like him than any of her brothers and sisters that I can see," says Walinsky, who worked for RFK at the Justice Department. "She'll talk like him. She'll look like him."

Townsend does bear a striking resemblance to her father, apparent even as she sits in a faded T-shirt and shorts chatting in the living room of her rambling gray Victorian house in Baltimore County. "Clearly, I was very influenced by him. Probably because I was this dutiful daughter," she says.

But a wall of privacy creeps up when she is asked about how much her father fostered her beliefs and her politics. "I might engage [in such introspection] more than I would like to share with you, is the fair answer. I think . . . yeah, that's what I think," she says, ending the line of questioning.

Walinsky and other friends are convinced that if Townsend had been a Kennedy male, she would have been groomed for the Massachusetts congressional seat that JFK once held and that, instead, her brother Joe ran for and won in 1986. But Townsend and her siblings insist no. Joe Kennedy had spent much of his adult life in that district and earned his shot; Townsend was preparing to move to Maryland to be near her husband's parents in Towson.

Part of the reason for this move was that Townsend had begun to focus on some sort of a career in public life. David expected to take a more active role in running the household and raising the children. His parents could help. So they decided to move to Maryland. He returned to teaching, at the St. John's campus in Annapolis, with a more flexible academic schedule.

It was clear from them on: He would do the laundry and cook; she would do politics. Buying a house in a congressional district tilting Republican turned out to be poor career starter for a politician -- just a few miles away was a more Democratic district -- but it did put the family only minutes from David's parents.

The neighborhood was comfortably older suburban, nice but not too grand -- and that was another attraction. "I thought it was important for our kids to see both sides of life," says David Townsend. "The sphere of life is much smaller [here]. It was important for them to see that, as opposed to life being this glittering panoply of possibilities. They should know what the struggles of ordinary people are like, as opposed to what Kathleen's family is like."

After her failed congressional bid, Townsend took an obscure job in the Maryland Department of Education and turned it into a crusade for requiring all Maryland high schoolers to do community service. For half a dozen years, she and an assistant crisscrossed Maryland in Townsend's minivan, driving from school to school to develop grass-roots support for the idea. It paid off in 1992 when Maryland became the first state to require such service.

In 1993 she took a job at the Justice Department overseeing grants to local police departments and community groups. Townsend used the post to push another community service idea, a police corps. People would get their college expenses paid in exchange for serving as police officers for four years. The idea finally reached fruition not long ago in several cities, including Baltimore, where as lieutenant governor Townsend has presided over two graduation ceremonies for cadets.

"I grew up in a time of public service and I believe that people can do wonderful and great things if only they're asked," says Townsend. "They can accomplish important efforts together if they know they can trust one another and have confidence in one another."

By the early 1990s, Townsend began to consider seeking elected office again. "I was always interested in public life and public service and politics, but you have to make choices as to whether there's a good chance that you can win," she says.

She had concluded that in her congressional district she couldn't. Then in 1994 she saw an opportunity, as a running mate for Parris N. Glendening, then the three-term Prince George's county executive who was beginning his run for governor.

Over an outdoor lunch at Bentley's, a popular restaurant across the street from the University of Maryland, where Glendening taught political science, the two met and talked for two hours.

He wanted a woman as his lieutenant governor, preferably someone from the Baltimore area for geographic balance. But more important, Townsend, unlike some other possible candidates he had interviewed, had talked policy during their meeting, not just how to win the election. For a policy wonk like Glendening, that, combined with Townsend's pedigree and connections, sealed it. Glendening offered her the job on the spot and said later that he had found his "ideological soul mate."

When Townsend joined the campaign, she surprised some of Glendening's people, who, unfairly perhaps, had assumed any Kennedy would be a seasoned pro. The feeling at the time was that "she really didn't have any political sense," recalls one of Glendening's top advisers who declines to be identified.

Concerned by her lack of experience, campaign handlers limited her to the friendly Democratic confines of Montgomery County and Baltimore. "That made her crazy, but we didn't feel she should be out beyond those areas," the adviser says.

It was another heady year for the Kennedys in politics. In addition to Townsend running for lieutenant governor, her brother Joe was up for reelection in Massachusetts, her cousin Patrick was leaving the Rhode Island legislature to run for Congress and her cousin Mark Shriver was making his first bid for Maryland's General Assembly. A campaign button floated around reading, "Vote for the Kennedy nearest you."

All were successful. But for Glendening and Townsend it was a close call. With an unusually strong campaign run by conservative Republican legislator Ellen R. Sauerbrey and her running mate, former Howard County police chief Paul Rappaport, their victory margin was only 5,993 votes.

During the transition team's first press conference, Glendening, his wife, Frances Anne, chief of staff Major Riddick and several future administration officials stood at the lectern. Townsend was relegated to a couch off to the side.

One of her first outings as lieutenant governor was a disaster. A month after taking office, with Glendening forced to make severe budget cuts because of a recession, Townsend found herself addressing an Annapolis rally of 500 advocates for the poor. While that might have been a natural audience for a Kennedy, Townsend was facing a crowd angry that the new administration was slashing a $35 million aid program for disabled, unemployable adults.

She opened oddly by wishing the group a happy Valentine's Day (it was February 14). Visibly nervous, she noted she had once slept in a homeless shelter and talked up the new administration's desire for more people to get jobs. The advocates remained unconvinced. For relief, Townsend finally turned to answer a question from a middle school student in the crowd, but didn't get a break: "What about people who can't work?" the boy asked. The crowd cheered.

Those early stumblings left the good ol' boys in Annapolis chuckling. Townsend was a lightweight, they said. She'd never amount to anything. Then came last year's reelection campaign. No one was snickering anymore.

The economy was great, crime was down and, on paper at least, a Democratic incumbent in Maryland should have waltzed to reelection. Yet Sauerbrey was making another run at it and getting some traction. Voters weren't sure about Glendening. Far from charismatic, and after some first-term stumbles, Glendening soon found his poll numbers were less than stellar. The Democratic ticket was hardly a shoo-in.

The party was less than united. Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, the state's two most prominent African American politicians, were refusing to back Glendening, calling him unreliable. The governor himself seemed unsure of how to handle himself politically. Amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he became one of the most prominent Democrats to condemn President Clinton, earning national headlines -- and White House fury -- when he canceled a fund-raiser with the president.

Behind the scenes, Townsend worked to repair the damage. She urged the campaign to keep communication open with Curry and Schmoke, who could have a major impact on the vital African American vote. When Clinton appeared at a Montgomery County school at the height of the scandal, Glendening was noticeably absent -- but Townsend was there.

"You folks have completely miscalculated this situation. You stick by your friends," she told the campaign's strategists then. The message hit home. "Kathleen was right, and we were wrong," campaign communications director Peter Hamm says now. A month later, Glendening appeared with Clinton at another Montgomery County school, along with a crowd of state and national Democrats that included Townsend and Ted Kennedy.

When Glendening's first wave of television commercials came out and were panned by Democratic voters as boring and ineffective, Townsend turned to Robert Shrum, an old family friend, for help. Shrum had advised Ted Kennedy's campaigns and knew Maryland from having worked for Sen. Barbara Mikulski. He was state of the art.

Shrum's first commercials actually opened with Townsend. Her face filled the screen as she spoke warmly about Glendening, describing him as a man of "courage." Speaking directly into the camera, she came off as sincere and genuine. Most subsequent ads showed the two running mates together.

"We had a governor who was not beloved by the masses. He was a little bit nerdy. The press thought he was slippery and politically opportunistic. The public thought he was a little bit dull. The polls showed the public was intrigued by Kathleen," says Hamm. "Sometimes politics comes down to that level of simplicity. She's likable and it comes off in 30 seconds."

"She was the hero of the reelection last year," says Ellen Malcolm, who heads up EMILY's List, a political action committee that supports female candidates nationally. "I think it's fair to say a lot of the old boys network didn't take her seriously. She got respect the old-fashioned way: She earned it."

Townsend was clearly more confident on the stump this time around -- dealing with the press sometimes for Glendening -- but she could still be awkward in off-the-cuff remarks and a little unpolished, and sometimes overly enthusiastic, in her speechmaking style.

When Townsend first became lieutenant governor, she told a reporter that success at the programs Glendening had entrusted to her was all that mattered, saying, "I couldn't care less if you hear about my name if we can accomplish those."

But these days her political ambition is bursting forth.

There has been a makeover. The running shoes are gone. Now, Townsend wears tailored suits and polished heels. The gray is colored out of her hair, which is clipped so that it bounces but stays in place when she's speaking in public. She has worked with a speech coach to improve her style, is developing a fund-raising network and is clearly trying to get so far in front of her potential Democratic rivals, who include Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan and Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, that the gubernatorial nomination will be hers without question.

"She lives for politics," says her youngest sister, Rory Kennedy. "It is her essence."

As she sits in her private office on the second floor of the State House, a huge poster of Joan of Arc in the background, a red leather chair of her father's behind her desk, and family photos and art by her kids everywhere, she puts it this way: "I like making decisions about what needs to be done, and when you are the candidate you get to make the decisions. You get to set the policy and you get to set the agenda. And also I think I'm good at it. It's what you can do and what your talents are. Would I love it if I could discover the gene that cured cancer? Yeah, but that's not where my talents are. One has to be a little self-aware of what you can do."

Townsend still has to prove what she can do. One of Glendening's biggest fund-raisers, a Baltimorean, has told her he will not support her gubernatorial ambitions, preferring Duncan or Ruppersberger. "Ever since she came here, she's been running for office," says the fund-raiser, who asked not to be named. "She's just an officeholder looking for a place to land."

A more serious obstacle lurks behind the male-dominated culture of Maryland politics, where Townsend's image is still of a ditsy woman interfering in a game she hasn't earned the right to play. Critics like to point out that she has never been elected to anything on her own -- the lieutenant governor's job is part of a ticket with the governor and has as much or as little power as the governor deems to give it.

But her backers attribute these criticisms to envy of a smart woman who has moved fast. "Kathleen's problem initially with some people was that she had not started in the state Senate or something in Maryland. She started as the second highest official in the state, and there's a natural human reaction to rebel against that," says Shrum.

Yet her influence grows. In a practice from the campaign that has continued into the administration's second term, Glendening's aides use Townsend as an intermediary when the governor is reluctant to do something they think he should do. The governor recognizes the stratagem, but will often defer to her anyway.

But if Glendening can be influenced by Townsend, it is also clear who's the boss. Legislators tell stories of seeking money for programs they know Townsend likes only to have her report back that Glendening won't go for it.

The two are close. They share a top aide, the reelection's campaign manager, Karen White, who has joined state government but is expected to manage Townsend's 2002 campaign. Townsend and the governor meet privately once a week, without assistants, in Glendening's chandelier-lit office. Any disagreements stay behind the closed doors. Friends and aides say that even in private she remains complimentary and respectful about Glendening. "He made me lieutenant governor. I'm grateful to him," she has told one friend.

And the admiration is mutual. "I told her five years ago that `we were going to have eight great years and then whatever you want to do, I'm with you,' " Glendening says. He now touts her as his successor.

That support has helped dampen some of the sniping by critics and allowed her profile to rise even higher. There are more than three years left in this administration, and as one Democratic operative who doesn't like Townsend but won't go on the record says, "The bottom line is she's lieutenant governor and close to the governor."

Townsend has heard the whispering -- that she is unprepared, that she hasn't done her time, that she's gotten where she is only because of her maiden name. "I just thought they were wrong and I thought, time will tell," she says. "I just knew my time line might be different than others'."

In the past, being lieutenant governor of Maryland wasn't worth the proverbial bucket of spit. Some governors have openly feuded with their lieutenant governors. Gov. William Donald Schaefer had a particularly testy relationship with Melvin A. Steinberg. Gov. Harry Hughes ignored, insulted and then dumped his first lieutenant governor, Sam Bogley. While a couple, such as Steinberg, have tried, no lieutenant governor in modern times has successfully used the job as a launching pad for the top spot.

But Townsend, with Glendening's support, has approached the job differently. She's been assigned responsibility for criminal justice issues, and such important agencies as the prison system and state police report to her. This year, she's added economic development to her portfolio, allowing her access to some of Maryland's most important business people, who just coincidentally might be tapped to donate to her gubernatorial campaign.

The lieutenant governor's suite, across the hall from the governor's offices on the State House's second floor, has been a sleepy spot in the past. In Steinberg's day it was just him and a secretary. But with Townsend, the rooms are jammed with young, earnest-looking policy wonks. They work elbow to elbow at computers under black-and-white Kennedy photos adorning the walls.

Her efforts on criminal justice issues have not been make-work window dressing. She has advocated HotSpots, in which state and federal resources are targeted at high-crime areas -- the efforts have included not only stepped-up law enforcement but additional probation officers, after-school programs and community improvements such as better street lighting. She has increased drug testing for those on parole and probation, pushed to eliminate parole for those serving life sentences and advocated increased funding for more state troopers.

"No other state has ever allocated its money on where the crime is. Usually, it's where the votes are," says Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist who directs the Fels Center of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and is leading a study of some of Townsend's crime programs. "There's no question in my mind that she's far more substantive on crime than any other governor or lieutenant governor in the country."

Her tough-on-crime stance is a key tenet of her philosophy as a centrist Democrat. She is one of the most visible members of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, putting her to the right of Uncle Teddy and other more liberal members of her family. Her support for the death penalty, for instance, led the conservative National Review to write recently that she is "a Kennedy we do not have to abhor."

When jfk jr.'s Piper airplane plunged into the ink-dark ocean off Martha's Vineyard in July, killing all three people on board, the massive scrutiny that comes with being a Kennedy was apparent once again.

In the days following the plane crash, and the burial at sea of Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law, the focus was more than ever on the next generation, their prospects, and America's complex feelings about the Kennedy legacy.

Townsend says she didn't follow the stories. "I was at home, praying and going to church."

But she understands that the attention comes with the territory. Her ascendance has meant her every move is being second-guessed. And her family name will not always be a benefit.

In June, a truck slammed into a bridge, shutting down the Beltway around Baltimore at the height of rush hour. One person was killed, three were seriously injured and traffic was snarled for hours. Glendening was out of the state, so the state police called Townsend to the scene late in the evening. She appeared live on all of Baltimore's newscasts. "We've got to make sure we hold those that did this accountable," she said to the television cameras. "I believe that we should hold them financially responsible for all the incredible waste that has occurred tonight."

Her quick jump to allocate blame rubbed some people the wrong way. "Given her family's history, she must understand that sometimes accidents happen, especially involving motor vehicles and bridges," one man wrote to the Baltimore Sun.

Later, the driver was cited for traffic offenses with fines totaling $880. But prosecutors decided that he was not criminally negligent. His company may be liable for the costs of the damage.

Townsend says the pressure of the newfound scrutiny leaves her unfazed. "What's the alternative?"

She has tried to stake out her own record on her own issues. But her family heritage is always the backdrop, influencing how many people view her, projecting their feelings about the Kennedys onto her and her ambitions, sometimes envisioning wild scenarios that could only come because she is a Kennedy.

Even usually clearheaded political hands in Annapolis speculate about Ted Kennedy helping to engineer a post in Washington for Glendening so that Townsend could step up to the governorship and run as an incumbent in 2002. There are variations on the theme: Vice President Gore wins the presidential election and elevates Glendening to an administration job as a favor to Townsend. Glendening seeks a new job as a favor to Townsend. Townsend skips all that and runs for vice president with Gore.

Townsend's sister Kerry Kennedy Cuomo says she is amazed by the speculation:

"It's not like we all sit around and say, `You're going to take Massachusetts. You're going to take Maryland. Who's going to take

New York?' "

Says Sen. Kennedy: "She's made all of her own political judgments and will continue to do so."

Indeed, from her abortive run for Congress to her desire to be lieutenant governor and do more than just fill an empty State House office, Townsend has made her own calls on her career. In doing so, she has succeeded in leapfrogging all other Democrats in just over four years.

How much of that would have been possible if her maiden name weren't Kennedy? That's an unanswerable question of the past. Clearly, Townsend has arrived where she is partly because of her lineage. The question for the future is whether, in the end, she will be known for her name or her deeds.

Daniel LeDuc covers Maryland politics for The Post. He'll be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at www.wash-