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11.30.09

The Kennedys' Southern Strategy

America’s premier political dynasty has been shying away from public office of late. But Maria Shriver’s brother, eyeing the governor's race in Florida, may be about to change that.

The death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy last summer left the future of America's premier political dynasty in doubt. His relations declined to enter the race to succeed him in Massachusetts. His niece, Caroline, had a rather painful flirtation with running for the New York Senate seat left vacant by Hillary Clinton before bowing out. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, another niece, exited the political stage in Maryland after a failed bid for governor. That leaves Kennedy's son, Patrick, a U.S. representative from Rhode Island, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who married into the clan, as the famous family's most prominent public officeholders.

That may be about to change.

Shriver “is seriously thinking about it,” said one Democratic source. “He’s always wanted to run for office.”

Anthony Kennedy Shriver—the son of Eunice Kennedy and Sargent Shriver—has been meeting with family, friends, and advisers about running for governor of Florida in 2010. "He is seriously thinking about it," said one Democratic source, who, like many of those interviewed, requested their name not be used so as not to alienate or anger the Kennedy family. "He's always wanted to run for office. It's part of the family tradition."

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham told The Daily Beast that he has spoken to Shriver about the governor's race and the two were planning a face-to-face meeting in the coming week. "I have a great deal of respect for Anthony and all that he has done and the family he represents," said Graham. But an endorsement is unlikely: "I think running for governor is a high aspiration for someone who has never run for office before," Graham added.

Big Fat Story: The Most Likable KennedysThe ambition might be lofty, but the job is open. The incumbent governor, Republican Charles Crist, has already declared he won't run for re-election next year, and will seek a U.S. Senate seat instead. Former Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, now the state's attorney general, is the leading GOP candidate to replace Crist. Florida's chief financial officer, Alex Sink, is seen as the leading Democratic contender—that is, unless Shriver were to enter the race. (Shriver and Sink both declined to comment for this article.)

Shriver, 44, lives on Miami Beach, where he is often seen ferrying his five kids around his tree-lined neighborhood in a golf cart. His wife, Alina, is Cuban-American and represents the pop artist Romero Britto. His sister is Maria Shriver, the first lady of California.

Following in the footsteps of his mother, who founded the Special Olympics, Anthony Shriver started his own nonprofit organization in 1989 called Best Buddies International, which matches individuals with physical and mentally disabilities with people who work with them.

"He's dedicated his life to helping disadvantaged kids for the past 20 years," said the Democratic source. "Now he is interested in doing something to help the state of Florida."

Added another Florida Democrat: "This is where he lives. This is where he is raising his children. And he is embarrassed about what is happening in the state—its schools, the environment, the entire culture in the state capital. He thinks Florida needs dramatic change and he's just not sure the current crop of candidates are up to it."

Sink would have at least one advantage going into a primary fight: Florida has not always been kind to the Kennedy clan. The family has had a compound in Palm Beach—the site of regular Christmas and Easter retreats—ever since Joe Kennedy first bought the oceanfront estate in 1933. But voters have not warmed to them. John Kennedy lost the Sunshine State to Richard Nixon. Bobby Kennedy skipped the Florida primary in 1968 to concentrate on the California race seven days later. And Jimmy Carter crushed Ted Kennedy here in his 1980 primary bid.

And that was before the family name was forever scarred in this state in 1991, when William Kennedy Smith was accused of raping a woman on the beach. A Florida jury eventually acquitted Smith and the compound was quietly sold in 1995.

Shriver's good-guy image could well reverse the curse. But he'd have to win over Florida's Democratic establishment first. Not long after Crist announced he'd leave the governor's mansion vacant, the state party took great pains to clear the path for Sink—a former banker and moderate Democrat from central Florida who has proven she can win statewide. But Shriver's possible entry has thrown the state party's plans into disarray and they have been mounting a campaign to pressure Shriver not to run, according to sources.

Former Sen. Graham, who has endorsed Sink, would not say whether he was part of that effort. "Our conversations about that will be private," Graham said. But he added: "I think Alex [Sink] is a very strong candidate."

Graham’s view aside, Sink has not generated much excitement in the race thus far. Without a primary challenger, she has kept a low profile. And lately the stories written about her are not very flattering. For instance, one of her campaign contributors is now under investigation by the feds in connection with an alleged billion-dollar Ponzi scheme and she has been criticized for using a state airplane to ferry her between the state capital and her home in Tampa. Nevertheless, party leaders fear a bruising competitive primary will weaken the eventual nominee and make it easier for Republicans.

Shriver's supporters believe he would be a stronger candidate, regardless of who the GOP nominates. He is a professional fundraiser, so he should have no trouble raking in the millions necessary to mount a statewide campaign, they say.

"He can run as an outsider on a total change platform," a supporter said. "A campaign of, 'Throw them all out,' is going to be very appealing to voters this year. And if he did get into the race, he would immediately have notoriety. It would cause everyone to suddenly pay attention."

Added another Democratic source: "Have you seen the guy? He may be the best-looking Kennedy to surface in a long time. Women are going to go crazy for him."

Polls show Sink with a slight lead over Attorney General Bill McCollum, the leading Republican candidate. There have been no polls made public showing how Shriver would do against Sink in a primary or against McCollum in a general election.

Friends say he is not interested in talking about his plans until he makes a decision. Shriver's biggest concern is said to be the toll an entry into politics could take on his family. His supporters say he knows he would become a target for Republicans not just here in Florida but across the country. He also knows the less-than-savory aspects of the Kennedy tradition—including the Palm Beach scandal involving his cousin William Kennedy Smith—would likely surface.

But with the passing of both his mother, who died on August 11, and his uncle, Ted Kennedy, who died two weeks later, Shriver is said to be eager to enter public life. He is expected to make his decision in the next two weeks.

Jim DeFede, a longtime South Florida investigative reporter, works for CBS4 News in Miami.