BY KENNETH LOVETT
DAILY NEWS ALBANY BUREAU CHIEF ALBANY—Caroline Kennedy is going for it.
Gov. Paterson said Kennedy called him Monday to formally ask to be considered for the U.S. Senate seat that will open up when Hillary Clinton becomes Secretary of State.
Paterson, who will make the two-year pick, said Kennedy wants to "to tell me what she thinks her qualifications are."
The governor spoke to Kennedy about the seat on Dec. 3, but wasn't sure if she was serious or just dipping a toe in the water.
Although Paterson has the only say, Kennedy has reached out to some of the state's top Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).
Kennedy also was calling many in the state's congressional delegation and others such as Time Warner Chairman Richard Parsons and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, with whom she has worked.
Klein said Kennedy spent the last week giving serious thought about the position, how it would affect her family and the fact that she would have to run for election in 2010 and reelection in 2012. "She's clearly ready and sort of making sure people know she's willing to do the hard work that's necessary," he said.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) said Kennedy called her Monday to say "she's excited about the race and she's ready to roll up her sleeves." While saying they won't publicly back a candidate, Quinn and a host of others cited Kennedy's credentials as a public education advocate and her life as a lawyer and constitutional scholar.
"She is in," a top Dem source said. "I don't see how he [Paterson] says no. He has to do it."
Kennedy, who has said nothing to the press, has gotten warm praise from President-elect Barack Obama and Mayor Bloomberg, but has also been the subject of criticism from Clinton supporters who say she lacks the experience to be a U.S. senator.
"We don't know if Caroline has that fire in the belly," Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens, Brooklyn) said outside a Clinton fund-raiser last night. "Being senator of New York is a 2-4/7, 365-day-a-year endeavor."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who spoke yesterday with Kennedy, said he "unequivocally disagrees" with the criticism. "Elected office is not the only area of public service that establishes leadership in this country," Sharpton said.
Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said the senator will not be weighing in on the debate.
"This is entirely Gov. Paterson's decision," he said.
Kennedy is the daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy and niece to the late Robert F. Kennedy, who once held the seat she is seeking. Known for her shyness, she's spent most of her adult life out of the public spotlight.
One person who worked with her at the city Education Department said, "I never thought this is something she would be interested in."
Kennedy has hired a political consulting firm tied to Schumer and Bloomberg and The News has learned she may soon embark on a quasi-"listening tour" upstate - just as Clinton once did.
Her family, particularly her uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy, was pushing her to go for the seat. Many say Edward Kennedy wants to ensure that the decades-long tradition of having a Kennedy in the Senate continues.
Her cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was thrilled to hear the news, saying she immediately becomes the favorite to replace Clinton.
"You'd immediately have someone in the Senate who everyone wants to work with and who has a winning personality," he said.
Citing her work with Obama, who calls Caroline Kennedy "one of my dearest friends," RFK Jr. noted the value of having a freshman senator "with direct access to the President and to thebiggest political names in the Senate."
Asked about the criticism, he said, "It's New York. It's politics. Nobody is going to waltz in ... without being criticized."
Paterson will make his decision after Clinton is confirmed.
Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.), who has announced he'll run for the seat in 2010, said he expects Kennedy to be Paterson's choice.
"It makes me more inclined to run than ever," he said.