WHEN KATHLEEN Kennedy Townsend was running door-to-door in her campaign for Congress in 1986, some people threw their arms around her, others cried, many spoke with reverence about her father, Robert F. Kennedy. Some showed her photographs of her father that were hanging in their homes.

"I think he really touched something deep and enduring in people," Townsend said recently. "He really cared about how they were doing. And he had a great deal of outrage at the injustice that goes on."It wasn't just made up to appeal to an interest group. It was true. It was genuine. That's what people want, something genuine. I think the saddest thing is that people forget."

Twenty years after her father's death, during an interview in her office last week, Townsend remembered. A lawyer by training, she works for the Maryland's Department of Education, creating programs in which high school students earn credits for community work.

She was one month shy of her 17th birthday when her father, after claiming victory in the California Democratic presidential primary, was shot to death. The attorney general in the Cabinet of his brother, President Kennedy, and a senator from New York, he died June 6, 1968, at 42.

Townsend is the oldest of Ethel and Robert Kennedy's 11 children. She would not discuss the assassination, except to confirm that the night of the shooting she was asleep in her dorm room at Putney Preparatory School in Vermont. She was awakened by the headmaster, who had seen the shooting on television.

Townsend, 36, preferred to talk about her father's legacy and her memories of him. She was as spirited and earnest in conversation as she was a campaigner. In her first, unsuccessful run for office two years ago, she sprinted from house to house trying to unseat Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md..

"He was very interested in showing each of us that we should try our hardest, and we should excel, and we shouldn't give up," she said. "This came through in the football games (t Hickory Hill, the family home in Virginia).

"We would practice in the morning, and we would toss the football, and he'd say, `Try! If you can touch the football you can catch it!' It was always you had better try your hardest, you had better try your best. Don't pity yourself. Don't be a sissy. Don't cry."

Competition was so keen that once, after beating her father in a ski race at Aspen, Colo., 13-year-old Kathleen had engraved on her skis: "Dec. 31, 1964, KBD." KBD stood for "Kathleen Beat Daddy."

Was there excessive pressure to perform?

"I wouldn't use the word pressure," Townsend said. "I'd just say, `Yeah, you do well.' It wasn't that you were supposed to float around and feel good about yourself. There was none of that. Life is tough. You have to get involved, and you have to face what are the very difficult, difficult questions.

"There was a great quote he used a lot: `Only God and angels can be lookers-on.' The rest of us have to participate."

At the dinner table Robert Kennedy's children participated. He quizzed each one about history and current events.

"You don't do that with your children?" Townsend asked.

Does she do it with hers? "Sure. Absolutely."

She has three daughters, all born at home by natural childbirth: Meaghan, 10, Maeve, 8, and Kate, 4. Her husband, David Townsend, teaches the Great Books Program at St. John's College in Annapolis. They have lived in Ruxton, a suburb of Baltimore, since 1984.

They do other things that young Kathleen did with her family. They tickle-tumble - tickling and tumbling and roughhousing among themselves.

They gather at night for prayers and Bible reading. In Ethel and Robert Kennedy's home, the children gathered every night, usually around their parents' bed, and said the Rosary and nightly prayers. One of their parents - "usually Daddy," Townsend said - read from the Bible, always the Old Testament.

Does she think the country would be different had he lived?

"Obviously I do," she said. "But I think that what he was very good about was not saying how life would be different, for instance, if John F. Kennedy had lived, but to say, `What can I do to make things better?'

"I think his attitude was, `There're real problems out there. And there're challenges, and each of us is endowed with great potential and talents. How are we going to use those talents well? How are we going to remember our outrage that there's injustice?' "

She believes that her father would be talking today about the reconciliation of blacks and whites, the scandal at the Department of Justice, the lack of leadership, the inner city, drugs, schools, morals, the environment, greed.

"I think he'd be concerned that our public leaders have not thought of any policy that makes lots of individuals feel they're participating in something," she said. "I don't think any individual police officer or drug-treatment worker really feels they're part of a larger effort, because they don't feel they're getting the leadership from on high. And I feel that's true with our education system. . . .

"He wanted accountability. But accountability gets difficult, because when you start making people accountable they don't like it. You're judging them. And it's not popular now to judge people. Well, he was willing to judge, and say unpopular things.

"He'd be saying that teenage pregnancy is wrong. It's wrong to have a baby when you're 13 or 14 or 15. And it's wrong for boys to get a girl pregnant and abandon her. I mean, that is wrong. You've got to have some sense of pride and responsibility.

"I think it's important to say these sort of things. I think - and I know it's true for me - that it's easier to aim high when you know there are others who aimed high before you."

On the day her uncle, President Kennedy, was buried, her father wrote her a letter. It was two decades after John and Robert's older brother, Joe, was killed in World War II. The letter, in part, read:

"Dear Kathleen . . . As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a particular responsibility to John and Joe. Be kind to others and work for your country. Love, Daddy."

Kathleen was 12. Five years later her father was dead. He would be 62 now.