She always wanted to do what was right. When her younger brothers and sisters turned a Colorado ski-vacation house into a food-fight battleground, the teenage Kathleen Kennedy Townsend faced her indignant parents and took responsibility for the mess. In her hands, a plan to stage a backyard circus would turn into a fundraiser for her Catholic school. It was no joke, she said, that her childhood nickname was the Nun.

"I don't know how to describe her except that she was always just so good," said her younger brother, the former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II.

Most people reach back to childhood to find powerful influences on their character and drive, and this is vividly true for Townsend -- niece of President John F. Kennedy, eldest child of Robert F. Kennedy, the first female politician to emerge from that mythic political family. But as she runs for governor of Maryland after eight well-behaved years as lieutenant governor, the very characteristics that make Townsend a good person may also hurt her as a politician.

Her stump style has been criticized as awkward, uninspiring and prone to the kind of verbal gaffes that haunt her for a long time. More serious, however, are questions about her leadership skills, whether she is too careful and tentative, even too philosophical, to be an effective chief executive in a time of huge budget deficits and rising needs.

After she squandered a double-digit lead this summer over her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., critics called her loyal to a fault, sticking by some campaign officials even as they dragged down her momentum. While no one has questioned her sincerity, many have wondered whether she possesses her family's legendary zest for a rough-and-tumble political fight. In various news profiles, she has been called "The Anti-Kennedy" and "The Unsexy Kennedy."

Townsend, 51, is quite thick-skinned about the criticism. A lifelong student of self-improvement, she is always working to polish her image or prepare for the next speech, drawn from her oft-mentioned 32-page blueprint for Maryland government. She insists that she never had a master plan to enter the family business and that only a series of personal turning points brought her to this place. Despite her credentials, becoming a politician someday was hardly a childhood dream.

"When I was little, I remember wondering what I would do, because I believed very strongly in the message of, 'You've got to make a difference, you've got to make a contribution,' but I didn't know how that would manifest itself," she said. "It wasn't clear to me at all, and I think the reason it wasn't clear was I didn't have any role models for what women could do. It was the men who were attorney general or head of the Peace Corps or president or senator, and really, at that time, women were mostly raising children and raising money. The great women who I saw were the nuns and the lives of the saints -- they were the strong women."

She ran for office the first time in 1986, initially as plain Kathleen Townsend, a grab for Congress against a Republican incumbent in a heavily Republican Baltimore County district. The media focused on her disheveled appearance and trademark running shoes; she restored the "Kennedy" but lost badly anyway.

After that, she crisscrossed the state in near-anonymity for six years as head of the Maryland Student Service Alliance. Her goal, ultimately successful, was to make community service a requirement for high school graduation in Maryland, and toward that end, she trained teachers, developed curriculum and boosted support among reluctant school officials. It's a subject dear to her heart, and she still talks about a teacher scavenger hunt she organized -- "five points if you could find a homeless shelter in your community."

But despite her protests that she did not foresee a political career, she jumped at the chance when Democratic gubernatorial nominee Parris N. Glendening went looking for a female running mate in 1994.

"I think she clearly understood that you had to earn your way to the next step, and that meant being a good, supportive lieutenant governor who carries her weight in the administration," said the often aloof Glendening, who after eight years calls Townsend "one of my favorite people."

"The other part is much more interesting," he said. "She clearly is a person inspired by public service. She wants to serve. When she gives those quotes, not only from her father, but some of those Greek and Roman leaders -- I'm a political scientist and sometimes I'll think, who is she quoting? -- she's serious about it, very, very serious."

That sort of lofty thinking has led to another persistent observation about Townsend: that her tendency to look for the bigger philosophical framework may sometimes come at the expense of the gritty here and now. In her campaign announcement in the spring, she used the sort of phrase that spoke to her larger themes but also made listeners wonder what she was talking about: pledging "to make sure that every Marylander reaches her or his indispensable destiny."

In the meantime, providing more fuel to critics is a federal investigation into a Maryland crime agency under her watch. Although the grand jury probe is not targeting Townsend specifically, it is looking into whether her staff doled out money and used state employees for political reasons.

In her personal life, she remains a trouble-free Kennedy. The mother of four daughters, she has been married to David L. Townsend, a professor at St. John's College in Annapolis, for 29 years.

"Kathleen has that drive to renew the face of the Earth," David Townsend said. "Politics for her is not a job, it's a calling."

Public and Private

On the Fourth of July, which also happens to be her birthday, Townsend spent the day walking, not riding, in parades in the small Baltimore County towns of Dundalk, Towson and Catonsville, tiring out everyone around her as she shook hundreds of hands. Then, in what has become a birthday ritual in recent years, she and a bunch of staff workers and friends gathered at the Double T Diner in Catonsville for hamburgers and cake. For her whole life, her birthday party has been part of some larger political rally.

Or, put another way: "When you're born on the Fourth of July, you think all the fireworks are for you," teased her husband.

In person, even better one-on-one, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is down-to-earth and often makes fun of herself. She expresses frustration with reporters' failure to know her blueprint for Maryland -- detailed takes on the economy, the environment, traffic and crime. But then she ends her spiel with a hand on her heart, a deep theatrical breath and, "Thank you for letting me get that off my chest."

Compact and fit, with her thick, brown hair cut short, Townsend resembles her father; friends say her high energy and exhausting campaign style are also reminiscent of Bobby Kennedy's. But perhaps because of her family's long turn in the public spotlight, she seems to keep some part of her hidden. Political analysts and reporters have had a hard time defining her, calling her everything from an intellectual to not quite up to the job.

Much is made of her verbal missteps, feeding the notion that she gets flustered on stage or in front of the camera. Once, when referring to the diversity of her staff, she talked about workers who could speak "Hispanish." When she said the Baltimore Ravens had scored a winning "football," instead of a touchdown, it drew hoots across the region. Although she has taken speech lessons, many people still find her manner stiff or hesitant.

"Politicians frequently misspeak," said Republican media consultant Dick Leggitt, "but if they misspeak at the same time they're having problems with some of the programs they oversee, people have serious problems about whether they're up to the task. Lately, she's showing a much harder and sharper edge as the election comes down, and it does feed this image of whether she's just overwhelmed by all of this."

Other criticisms -- that she is too shielded and shepherded by aides -- speak again to the leadership question. She likes, perhaps too much, to have her facts and figures in hand, again making her seem tentative in decision-making. Republican detractors question whether she has enough experience to be governor and call her long association with Glendening a great liability.

Even some faithful Democrats acknowledge that she has had image problems.

"I think she has to make up her own mind," said former governor William Donald Schaefer (D), now the state comptroller. "During a campaign, you've got everybody pulling at you, twisting you, telling you to do this or that. She has to find herself, assert herself -- in other words, that leadership."

But Schaefer said he always preferred it when Townsend, instead of his nemesis Glendening, showed up at meetings of the state Board of Public Works. "It's a pleasure to work with her rather than Glendening," Schaefer said. ". . . She listens. She gives everybody the opportunity to talk. She doesn't think she has the vote automatically the way he does."

Always Kathleen, never a Kate or Kathy, Townsend is more complex than people think, her friends say, smarter and more ambitious. The questions about her leadership skills baffle them because, in their eyes, she has always been a leader: as a tomboy organizing games at Hickory Hill, her family home in McLean; as a young woman graduating cum laude from Harvard University or editing the law review at the University of New Mexico law school; or as Maryland's first female lieutenant governor.

"One of the fun things about being her friend is every now and then, you're caught up in one of her schemes," said lifelong friend Anne Proctor, who climbed the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps with Townsend when they were 18. To celebrate their 50th birthdays last year, the women fulfilled a promise, made as teenagers, to scale 14,100-foot Mount Rainier in Washington state.

"I never would have climbed a mountain with anybody else," Proctor said. "She's just like, 'Okay, let's do it,' and then she is smart about the way she goes about preparing for it. Politics is really sort of the same thing for her."

Co-workers say she has steadily improved during her tenure as lieutenant governor, evolving from the nervous speaker constantly consulting her index cards into a more assured public official with a clearer grasp of how to convey her message. They say that she is not the pushover some people think she is, and that, like a teacher who has nice manners but expects a lot out of you, she knows how to make her displeasure known.

Maryland Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari, who likes and respects her, calls it being "on the wrong end of her withering stare if you're unprepared on a topic." At a briefing on a complicated transportation project, he said, "I believed I had answers to every conceivable question. But Kathleen drilled deep very quickly on those issues. She absolutely wants to know the answer."

But there is no hidden diva behind closed doors. "What you see is what you get with Kathleen -- there's no secret person back there," said her running mate, retired Navy Adm. Charles R. Larson, whose selection added to the perception in some quarters that Townsend is oblivious to the prevailing political winds. She took some heat because Larson was not African American and because she kept the decision close to the vest. She says she now regrets the secrecy but not the choice.

Townsend's husband thinks gender bias is at work, even, sometimes, among friends.

"It's always a marvel," David Townsend said, "that people are so interested in appearances. There is so much substance to Kathleen. She makes a major speech, and someone I love will come up and say, 'Well, I love that dress she's wearing.' "

Townsend herself seems less troubled about such comments than those around her. On the wall of her Annapolis office hangs a framed handwritten note that may give the best clue to what makes her so determined. It was written when she was 12, on Nov. 24, 1963, two days after the assassination of her Uncle Jack the president. Although the note reflects the times, telling her to look out for her brother Joe and cousin John Jr., as if only the men could be considered the family standard-bearers, it also bore a message she apparently took to heart.

"Dear Kathleen," it says. " . . . Be kind to others and work for your country. Love, Daddy."

Raised to Serve Hickory Hill was a great place to be in the 1960s. The gracious white house in McLean, with the green lawns and the pool and the paddocks where the horses were kept, was a magnet for grown-ups and children. Every year, there was a pet show, with columnist Art Buchwald as the judge, to benefit the orphanage where Buchwald grew up. On any given day, students from poorer parts of the District might be playing in the back yard.

Kathleen was always in the thick of things, and so was her father, whenever he was home.

"It was this great combination of fun, work and always some plan in the offing, or a touch football game that was happening in the back yard," said Proctor, today a D.C. lawyer who handles the pro bono cases for her firm. "The adults and the kids sort of mixed it up a lot, because of Bobby being so engaged with the kids. He was just so inclusive."

As the eldest of 11 children, as well as Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy's first grandchild, Kathleen "knew from an early age that she was valued and loved," said her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). She was named for her father's much-admired older sister Kathleen, known as "Kick," who was killed in a plane crash in 1948.

"From an early age, she had this very special relationship not just with her mother and father, but with mine," Kennedy said about his niece. "She was there to take walks with my mother, and my father had a special affection for her. And she was greatly inspired by the people closest to her. Her father had this great internal strength and love and compassion and also a sense of caring and justice. And I think she sort of inhaled this atmosphere."

Her brother Joe, a year younger than she, remembers her reading two or three Nancy Drew novels a day and watching "almost no television. Kathleen was always very straight and respectable and kind of responsible for all of us."

Townsend is not sure she agrees with all the talk of how good she was. "I would say I was good for a while, and then I became less good," she said.

But she allows that she was a typical eldest child, dutiful if not always acquiescent.

"She was given to, let's say, polemical disputes from a very young age," said another brother, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 48, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I mean, she liked to argue, and my father encouraged that. Each of us had to read three current events every day, and we all had to keep a current events journal, and we were urged to come in and argue and debate. And I remember my sister Kathleen would always take the lead in those arguments -- she was extremely opinionated and fearless with my father."

In June 1968, Robert Kennedy was mortally wounded by an assassin after he had won the California Democratic presidential primary and seemed well on his way to the party's nomination. Townsend, then a student at the private Putney School in Vermont, flew to his bedside at a Los Angeles hospital. She was there when he died the next day. In typical fashion, the young philosopher-debater, not quite 17, tried to make sense of what had happened.

"It was the night after her father's burial at Arlington National Cemetery," Proctor said, "and I remember I was so upset and angry. . . . And she was comforting me. She said she was trying to understand how a human being could bring themselves to do such a horrendous thing."

A Family Adventure Townsend is determined to get what she wants, and she is happy to map out a plan and execute it. As a junior at Harvard, she met the man she decided she would marry. David Townsend, then 23 to her 20, was her tutor in U.S. history and literature.

"I love telling the story," she said cheerfully at a recent interview. "I can tell it again. Thank you for asking. People love to tell how they met their hubbies."

At first, he did not seem to understand that she was attracted to him.

"I had a mad crush on him, and of course he would have nothing to do with me," she said. " . . . I would say to him, 'Don't you think we should meet more often?' And he would say, 'Why?'

"He also had a girlfriend. I had a feeling, after the class ended, I needed to get him away from his girlfriend. So I suggested we build a raft and float down the Mississippi. And we did. He went along; he said, 'Sure.' We had been reading Mark Twain, so what else would you suggest?"

It worked. For three weeks that summer of 1972, five friends floated 500 miles down the Mississippi River. The couple were wed the next year.

The Townsends live in Baltimore County, where they have raised their daughters. Meaghan, 24, coordinates after-school programs in Los Angeles. Maeve, 22, is a teacher in the Peace Corps in Mozambique, the first Kennedy to enlist in that Kennedy-inspired program. Kate, 18, who completed her freshman year at Brown, is taking time off this semester to work on her mother's campaign. And 10-year-old Kerry is a frequent presence at campaign events, seeming to get a big kick out of the political hoopla.

David Townsend, who calls his life with Townsend "a great adventure," said he never thought she would end up a politician. If her life hadn't taken this turn, he thinks she would have been an artist. During the early years of their marriage, spent in New Mexico, she turned out "very ornate" pottery on a wheel.

Her brother, however, snorts at the suggestion that politics' gain was the art world's loss. "David must have seen a lot better pottery coming out of Kathleen than I did," said Joe Kennedy, who was never surprised that his sister entered politics. "I wouldn't want to have to rely on her art to put tuna fish on the table."

These days, the potter's wheel remains packed up in the basement. Since the family moved to Maryland in 1982, she has not had time to get it out.

David Townsend said he considers his wife's gubernatorial campaign "a family project," and he often appears at festivals and other gatherings on her behalf. But the Kennedy part of her family has so far taken a more low-profile role. Her Uncle Ted has advised her and was part of a group of leading Democrats who urged her to revamp her idling campaign. But Townsend's news releases have touted recent campaign appearances by former president Bill Clinton rather than members of the Kennedy clan.

Campaign officials said that the senator will appear more often with Townsend in the closing days and stressed that there "has not been a conscious decision" to exclude the extended family.

But Townsend does seem eager to show that she can stand, politically, on her own two feet.

"As you can imagine, I'm really proud of what my father has accomplished, what my uncles did," she said. "But I always knew, this is what you always learn, you're going to be judged on what you do."

Tomorrow: A profile of Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Daughters Kerry and Kate and husband David Townsend are familiar faces on the campaign for governor with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general, with daughters Kathleen, left, Kerry and Mary Courtney and sons Robert Jr., David, Michael and Joe. "It was this great combination of fun, work and always some plan in the offing," a friend said of the Kennedy home in McLean.As the good eldest child, Kathleen Kennedy's nickname was the Nun.Sen. Edward M. Kennedy with niece Kathleen, just out of college, at her wedding to David Townsend.Kathleen Kennedy speaks at a rally for Sen. George S. McGovern.Townsend, who led early on, is in a dead heat for governor.