Suddenly, Jimmy Panetta is everywhere.

From stumping for a veterans cemetery to wading into tensions between fishermen and environmentalists, the 43-year-old deputy district attorney and the youngest of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's three boys is busy learning the ropes of Monterey County.

He's made no secret of his motivation. He wants to follow his dad's footsteps to Congress when Rep. Sam Farr retires, possibly in 2016.

Publicly, the young Panetta gets high marks as a hard-working, charismatic person with an engaging smile and impressive resume: Santa Clara University Law School, Monterey County gang prosecutor via the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, Afghanistan War veteran, member of numerous Central Coast boards.

Privately, his political coming out party has raised some eyebrows, if not ruffled feathers. There are others who were believed to be eying a potential run at Farr's seat, state Sen. Bill Monning and Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett among them.

But Panetta's early entry into the fray has cleared that board, according to political insiders. While he's never held office, his name and his beloved father's influence may trump political experience or money -- even Packard-family money behind Burnett, a grandson of David Packard.

Burnett confirmed that he has ruled out a run for Congress the year Farr retires but said he made the decision for family reasons before Panetta went public.

Monning lost narrowly to Farr in the 1993 special election primary to replace Leon Panetta when he resigned from Congress to become President Bill Clinton's budget director. The senator said there's nothing to talk about at this point, though his future is also a question mark.

Leon Panetta, who also served as CIA director, said that both he and his son have told Farr he has their support as long as he wants to remain in office.

Through his spokesman, Farr withheld comment on the subject.

Longtime Farr supporter and Democratic officeholder Fred Keeley said the situation now is no different than when Leon Panetta was still in Congress.

Support for Farr is widespread among Democratic faithful. It hasn't stopped anyone, however, from taking notice of Jimmy Panetta, whose father, even out of office, is arguably the most powerful public figure on the Central Coast.

Jimmy Panetta is a "pretty bright light," said Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter, an active Democrat. "He's got the personality, he's got the record, the charisma. This guy's going to be able to break down some partisan walls."

It's those partisan walls that worry the elder Panetta. Washington, he said, is a much meaner place than when he was first elected in 1976.

"My greatest concern is that the place is dysfunctional in terms of the ability of people to work together to solve problems," said the senior Panetta. "But this is a problem not solved from top down. It's going to be from the bottom up.

"That means young people like Jimmy will return our democracy to a governing process that can work."

Bunkmates

Jimmy Panetta's aspirations for Congress were forged, literally, at his father's side.

Fresh out of UC Davis with a degree in international relations, Congressman Panetta's son took an internship at the U.S. State Department, a young diplomat's dream. His dad invited him to bunk at his Washington apartment, which was not.

The pad belonged to Congressmen George Miller. He had one bedroom and Rep. Marty Russo had the other. Rep. Chuck Shumer took the fold-out couch because his New York jurisdiction was closest.

Panetta and son slept on a full-size bed in the living room. After long days at the office, they went to the congressional gym together. At dinner, they broke bread with other legislators. It was 1991.

"The thing that struck me the most is what's missing today," said the younger Panetta. "He'd go out with this group of congressmen and congresswomen and they weren't just Democrats, they were Republican as well, and they all got along and it contributed to their working relationship.

"I realized then that I wanted to go to law school, but I think it also began the idea of my serving in Washington," he said.

Much later, the younger Panetta would have heady moments at his father's side on Air Force One and sitting 20 feet from President Barack Obama at this year's inauguration. But it was his dad's work as congressman -- hearing from people whose lives were affected in the most basic ways by his father's interventions -- that cemented his vision.

When his father was secretary of defense, Jimmy Panetta accompanied him back to Afghanistan, where the younger Panetta had served in 2007 and 2008. At a forward operating station, Panetta the elder statesman sat down for an off-the-record conversation with six enlisted men, accompanied only by his aide and his son.

Encouraged to speak freely, one soldier started with what at first seemed a surly remark: "I gotta thank you for being here," he said.

He went on to explain to Secretary Panetta that decades earlier his father was stationed in Germany, where he met and married his wife. On returning to Fort Ord, he couldn't get her into the United States. Even the Army had been unsuccessful, until Congressman Panetta intervened.

"Your office stepped in and they got my mother here and that's why I was raised in Seaside and that's why I'm here today and I want to thank you for that," Jimmy Panetta recalled him saying.

"It's stuff like that, the influence someone in that position can have on an individual, that's what it comes down to for me," Panetta said. "It's like Tip O'Neill's quote: 'All politics is local.'"

Tour in Afghanistan

Since his time in the State Department, Jimmy Panetta has traveled a path that almost seems designed to lead him back to Washington. He said he has the advice of his mother, Sylvia: "Don't ever let the grass grow under your feet."

Panetta graduated from Monterey Peninsula College and UC Davis before going on to Santa Clara University Law School. After joining the Alameda County prosecutor's office, where he met his future wife, Carrie, he fulfilled a longtime desire to join the Navy Reserve.

In 2007, when his daughters were just 1 and 3, he volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan, with Carrie's blessing.

"I just couldn't sit there and wear the uniform at home when there were people in Iraq dying and wearing the uniform as well," he said.

How did his parents feel about it?

"My dad told me, 'Keep your head down, do your job and get your ass home.'"

He served for a year as an intelligence officer with the Joint Special Operations Command, which is in charge of Delta Force and Seal Team 6.

"It was a very emasculating experience," he said of watching the exploits of the rugged team that would later kill Osama bin Laden while his father was running the CIA.

Years later, the younger Panetta would be at the table in the Sardine Factory the night Leon accepted restaurateur Ted Balestreri's famous challenge to take out bin Laden for a $10,000 bottle of 1870 Chateau Lafite Rothschild.