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Dan Collins

Dan Collins

Posted: January 7, 2010 09:01 AM

Now it's Harold Ford Jr.

The former Tennessee Congressman appeared like a UFO over the New York political scene this week. Most New Yorkers probably didn't even know he lives here, and suddenly he was being talked about as the Democrat who might seriously challenge Senator Kirsten Gillibrand this fall.

Ford, who moved to the city after losing a Senate race in his home state in 2006, felt like the right kind of candidate. Handsome and smooth, with a keen eye for the middle of the road, he had been on everybody's list of up-and-comers when he served in the House. He was so promising that he made people believe - for a minute - that a black African-American Democrat could be elected Senator from Tennessee.

The story about his interest in Gillibrand's seat had been around for a while. But this week, the Times attached names to it, particularly Steve Rattner, the financier and former car czar whose wife, Maureen White, is one of the city's premier political fundraisers. Rattner told the Times' Michael Barbaro that they "think the world" of Ford, who now works on Wall Street, leads the Democratic Leadership Council and is an established talking head on cable news.

Is he the one? The list of Democrats who have walked up to the idea of running in a primary against Gillibrand are legion.

It doesn't take a political genius to figure out why. Gillibrand is relatively young, relatively inexperienced. The appointment to the seat was virtually dropped into her lap last year when the plan to put Caroline Kennedy in the Senate imploded. Many of her colleagues thought they were equally - or a lot more - deserving.

Follow-up question: Why haven't any of the challenges taken hold?

Two answers: Money - Gillibrand already has a ton and the capacity to raise much more - and Chuck Schumer, New York's senior senator. Schumer is Gillibrand's political bodyguard. He's horrified by the idea of wasting Democratic time and Democratic campaign contributions on an internal party fight when there are Republicans to be battled.

The rest of the state may not share his vision. A lot of the political junkies who make up the party faithful, particularly downstate, just feel they could do better than Gillibrand. She's hard-working and energetic - yes, she sat through a long Armed Services Committee hearing before allowing herself to be rushed to the hospital to deliver her second child. But this is the state that gave the Senate Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jacob Javits, Robert Kennedy, Hillary Clinton. Even Al D'Amato was ... interesting. To some people Gillibrand feels too ordinary.

Like Caroline Kennedy, Ford fits into that something-special scenario. In another state, the fact that he's is a newcomer might be a disqualifier. But compared to Bobby Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, Ford is practically a New York founding father. At least we could tell ourselves that he moved here before he started running.

The real disqualifier is, of all things, Ford's positions on the issues. Like Gillibrand, who previously represented a rather conservative upstate district, Ford was a House member who was as liberal as he thought he could get away with. On abortion, he managed to infuriate both the National Right to Life Committee and the National Abortion Rights Action League. But he went through several campaigns in Tennessee insisting he was "pro-life."

He voted for the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. His record on gun control is far more conservative than Gillibrand's, who was hounded endlessly about her former coziness with the National Rifle Association when she took over Hillary Clinton's seat. And Gillbrand will have had nearly two years of doing penance by election time.

You can't run against an incumbent with the slogan: "Vote for me, I'm a more fascinating personality." Gillibrand's weak spot had always been that she shifted to the left only when it suited her political needs. But she shifted with extreme ardor. And she was not as far to the right as Ford to begin with. It's hard to conceive how he could pull the trick off.