FRANKLIN (AP) - Joseph Kennedy III had barely entered the room when the references to his lineage began.
"Was Ted your uncle?" asked Thomas McDermott, president of an auto parts manufacturer Kennedy toured recently as he campaigned for the 4th Congressional District seat in Massachusetts.
"Great-uncle," Kennedy replied. McDermott then related how he met Edward Kennedy at a fundraiser for his first U.S. Senate campaign in 1962, nearly two decades before the current candidate was born.
The tall, redheaded Kennedy flashed a broad smile and thanks McDermott. It won't be the last reminder of his family ties on this or any other campaign day. And it illustrated both the enormous benefit Kennedy, 31, gains from his connection to the larger-than-life political dynasty that many Massachusetts voters still hold dear as well as the danger that he could be dismissed as a political opportunist trying to trade on a family name or fading set of ideals.
Thursday's primary marks the first time a Kennedy has appeared on a ballot in Massachusetts since before Ted Kennedy's death in 2009. Joseph Kennedy is the prohibitive favorite over two little-known Democratic opponents. A three-way Republican primary will determine who faces the Democratic nominee in the race to fill the seat of the retiring Democratic Rep. Barney Frank.
With the acknowledged help of family connections, Kennedy, the son of former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II and grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy, raised more than $3 million through mid-August. Not only was it four times more than that raised by all of the other candidates in the race combined, it exceeds the amounts raised by any Massachusetts House incumbent seeking re-election.
"I'm obviously very proud of what my family has done, its legacy of public service around the country and in Massachusetts," Kennedy said in an interview, adding that he planned to earn every vote on his own.
"What we have been trying to do from the very beginning is get out there and just meet as many people as we possibly can, let them come out and kick the tires on me," he said, noting that he's campaigned in each of the 34 communities in the district and knocked on thousands of doors since entering the race in February.
The first of his generation in the family to seek public office, Kennedy served in the Peace Corps after graduating from Stanford University. He later attended Harvard Law School, where he worked for the student-run Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and began his career as a prosecutor in the Cape and Islands district attorney's office and later the Middlesex DA's office.
Despite growing up immersed in politics, he only recently decided to make it a career goal.
"This is not something I said at an early age, 'This is what I really want to go do,'" he said.
Democrat Herb Robinson, a software engineer who briefly ran for the U.S. Senate before entering the House race, has stressed his more than 30 years of experience in the private sector. The third Democrat in the race, Rachel Brown, is a follower of perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche and also ran against Frank in 2010.
The three Republicans are Sean Bielat, a businessman who ran a spirited campaign in the general election against Frank two years ago; Elizabeth Childs, a former state mental health commissioner; and David Steinhof, a Fall River dentist.
On this campaign day, Kennedy stays on mostly safe Democratic ground. He tours Clark-Cutler-McDermott Co., chatting with managers and workers and posing for pictures at the family-owned firm in Franklin that employs about 250 people and claims to be among the few unionized auto parts manufacturers in the Northeast.
McDermott, the company president, calls Kennedy a "chip off the old block" while also citing his "clean living." Kennedy has steered clear of the kind of highly publicized controversies that have plagued other family members.
The candidate, who is engaged to fellow Harvard Law grad Lauren Anne Birchfield, and his twin brother, Matt, were exposed to the harsh glare of the Kennedy spotlight as boys when their parents divorced. Their mother, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, later wrote a book about her fight against her ex-husband's effort to obtain an annulment from the Catholic church.
While Kennedy's name recognition and fundraising prowess afford him a clear edge in the race, a plausible path to victory exists for an opponent who can successfully court independent voters who "might rather vote their pocketbook and vote for a Republican than they would a Kennedy," said Gene Hartigan, a one-time head of the Republican State Committee.
Independents who comprise a majority of Massachusetts voters tipped the scales toward Republican Sen. Scott Brown in his upset victory in the 2010 special election to succeed the late Senator Kennedy. Hartigan notes that Brown carried several communities in the southern portion of the 4th District, which stretches from the affluent Boston suburbs of Newton and Brookline to the working-class cities of Attleboro, Taunton and Fall River.
Yet it's voters like Josephine Sullivan, 81, who could make more daunting the Republican task of defeating a Kennedy. A longtime resident of Mitt Romney's hometown of Belmont who was temporarily living with her son in Wrentham, Sullivan said she had met the Republican presidential nominee and planned to enthusiastically support him in November.
But she also remains fiercely loyal to the Kennedys.
"I love them," Sullivan said, after greeting the candidate at a senior center. "They're a wonderful family."