But several of the top-ranking Democrats on Appropriations are growing old. And if the congressman sticks around, observers say, he has a shot at the top post. "For a guy who's 42," says Duffy, "he has a lot of seniority under his belt."

Kennedy himself is cagey about his ambitions in the House. Sources close to the congressman say he has set his sites on the Speakership in the past. But the talk seems to have faded. In a recent interview, he spoke admiringly of Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who has emerged as one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's closest confidantes, suggesting he might like to play a similar role down the line.

Kennedy has a good relationship with the Speaker, who comes to his district at least once a year for a fundraiser. And that bodes well — as long as the congressman can hold onto his seat.

All indications are that he will. Ambitious Democrats have steered clear of challenging him, choosing instead to take on Rhode Island's other House member, Jim Langevin, a pro-life Democrat with a smaller war chest.

The Republicans, for their part, have mounted a couple of spirited challenges to Kennedy. And State Representative John J. Loughlin II, who is gearing up for a run next year, has shown some moxie. He says he's raised about $125,000 to date and is honing his one-liners. As he deadpanned about his opponent in a recent interview, "I'm very concerned about the addiction problem — and it's the addiction to spending."

But Kennedy, even at his lowest points, has crushed his Republican challengers. According to most observers, only a major gaffe in his personal life could eject him from office. "I've always said, the only person who can beat Patrick Kennedy is Patrick Kennedy," says Darrell West, author of Patrick Kennedy: The Rise to Power.

A return to rehab this summer, amid the stress of his father's illness, does not seem to have hurt him much. So it's not clear, at this point, that even Patrick Kennedy can beat Patrick Kennedy. The more pressing question, perhaps, is will he seek higher office?

Odds are, he won't. Kennedy seems ill-suited for, and uninterested in, a bid for governor. And the congressman passed on Senate runs against then-Republican Lincoln Chafee in 2000 and 2006, when the Democrats were in the minority and a move to the upper chamber might have been more appealing.

Sean Richardson, who was Kennedy's chief of staff from 2002 to 2007, says he had "significant conversations" with his boss about a Senate race in 2006. But they never went so far as to put a plan to paper.

After all, Kennedy was building seniority on Appropriations. And while the Republicans were in the majority, says Richardson, the committee's power made it a reasonably attractive way station for a Democrat awaiting his party's comeback.

These days, a Senate run seems even less likely. Both Rhode Island seats are held by Democrats, neither of whom seems likely to step down any time soon. Senator Jack Reed, sometimes mentioned as a possible secretary of defense, has significant pull on military matters and has signaled that he will stay in the chamber. And Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, building an ever-higher profile, seems poised to remain in his post for years to come.

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Related: Does Scott Brown’s victory mean doom for RI Democrats?, Might as well jump, An angry electorate? Eh, whatever, More more >
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