A rail-thin, raven-haired, pragmatic Republican woman of Greek descent from a hardscrabble upbringing in central Maine is about as far from a portly, leonine, patrician Irish-American playboy Democrat from Massachusetts as one can get.

Yet emerging from the shadow of Sen. Edward Kennedy is Sen. Olympia Snowe, whose growing influence and record of bipartisanship in the U.S. Senate is delivering her the opportunity to fill a leadership void created by Kennedy’s recent passing.

As cross-aisle efforts stumble on health care reform among their colleagues like Sens. Mike Enzi and Chuck Grassley, who along with Snowe are members of the so-called “Gang of Six” Senate negotiators on health care, the question of reform is becoming “What does Snowe want?”

The answer looks simple, according to observers: Snowe wants progress, she is genuinely interested in reform, but not to fulfill the ideological wishes of either party, but through incremental steps palatable to everyone, yet which still get the job done.

This is a legacy of Kennedy, as has been observed following his death. His accomplishments didn’t come from broad policy strokes or bold initiatives, but in the bipartisan negotiating that forged breakthroughs in difficult stalemates.

Sometimes it worked, such as Kennedy’s support of President George W. Bush’s program of No Child Left Behind, in which he broke with his party’s opposition. Sometimes it didn’t, like his ill-fated immigration reform bill of 2007, co-sponsored with Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

This is the story that is relevant to Snowe, and her place today as the linchpin of health care reform, which is needed in the United States, but now stands precariously across the gulf now dividing Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.

When the Senate returns from its August recess, all eyes will descend upon Snowe, as the canary in the health care coal mine. The talk around Washington of Democrats going alone on reform, and eschewing Republican support, is indicative of growing desperation about its prospects.

So are claims the Democrats would do this in Kennedy’s name, even though such a reckless political course runs against his record. Though an unabashed liberal and diehard Democrat, Kennedy knew to build bridges with his opponents, not burn them.

We think Snowe knows the same. There are so many differences between her and Kennedy, but they’re united by this innate understanding, a rare commodity nowadays among all the confusion and rhetoric about death panels and “Obamacare.”

When Kennedy died, the Senate lost a voice that when it spoke, everyone listened. Kennedy was nicknamed the “lion” for this roar, but a fierce, anthropomorphic analogy isn’t right for Snowe.

Nor does she need one. Snowe is not Kennedy.

But, on health care, she could be.

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