The entire Democratic Party was watching the 31-year-old lawyer to see if he has the charisma, seriousness and staying power to become a political player and recapture some of the family mystique that has dimmed in three years since Ted Kennedy’s death.
“It’s always nice to see young people claim the family mantle and the work going forward,” Mr. Widmer said.
While the younger Mr. Kennedy wants to look impressive on the national stage, to win he has to canvass his district and discuss meat-and-potato issues that his would-be constituents care about.
“I doubt the Kennedy legacy is a dominating theme of the election,” Mr. Widmer added.
The Kennedy clan’s decades-long presence in Washington came to an end last year when former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, known for his alcohol- and drug-related bouts and his work on mental-health legislation, decided not to run for re-election in his home state of Rhode Island.
Since then, the Kennedy family has made headlines more in the tabloids than in the political press, including stories of Conor Kennedy, grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, dating country singer Taylor Swift, and the suicide earlier this year of Mary Kennedy, wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Sen. Kennedy’s two sons, Ted Jr. and Patrick, showed up in Charlotte for their cousin’s moment in the spotlight, as well as for a Tuesday afternoon reception for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, which is under construction at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Although some Democrats are expressing muted enthusiasm for Mr. Obama’s re-election, Patrick J. Kennedy said his father’s legacy and Mr. Obama’s are inextricably linked, and if he were alive today, Edward M. Kennedy would again be rallying the troops for Mr. Obama.
“If my dad were alive, he’d be here reminding everybody that this president delivered,” Patrick J. Kennedy told the Boston Globe on Tuesday. “It’s the cause; that’s what the dream was.”
In many ways, Sen. Kennedy’s legacy also lives on in the army of Democratic political operatives and staffers who once worked for him — whom he trained and influenced.
Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Obama’s sharp-tongued deputy campaign manager, helped manage Kennedy’s communications while battled cancer, and Stephen Kerrigan, the CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, worked as a legislative assistant in his Senate office.
“He taught me more than he could have ever imagined about the art of legislating,” said Mr. Manley recalled.