Harold Ford Jr. Begs Off; Latest Victim of Gillibrand Charm Offensive

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This weekend Kirsten Gillibrand went around Nassau County, letting the folks know about the stimulus dollars that were going to build them a new community center, and drawing praise from local politicians.

About the same time, we suppose, Harold Ford was looking at his polling data and making the decision not to run against her in the 2010 Democratic Senatorial primary.

In bowing out, Ford said he wished to avoid a "brutal and highly negative Democratic primary" that would put the winner at a disadvantage against the Republican nominee, whomever that might be. (Mort Zuckerman? Bruce Blakeman?) But we suspect Ford backed off for the same reason Rudolph Giuliani did -- victory against Gillibrand would not be as easy as it might look.

Gillibrand still suffers from high "don't know" numbers in polls (56 percent in the recent Siena survey). But since she was plucked out of the hinterlands and dropped into the Senate in January 2009, she's been getting around the state, and the supermarkets, dishing out pleasant political palaver. If you get on her mailing list, she sends you plenty of notes, sometimes overtly political ("It's high time we work with President Obama to fix our broken system") but sometimes just to let you know she's thinking of you ("Will you join me for a live video Facebook chat today at 4pm Eastern?").

And in a way, her low profile helps her: New York state voters remain enraged at their incumbents, but Gillibrand hasn't got the sort of long record and strong ideological ID that might make a lightning rod of her. Though she gamely supports the Obama Administration's sometimes controversial policies, she more strongly publicizes her advocacy of baby product safety and clean water, causes that aren't likely to make too many people mad at her.

Gillibrand did mouth off a bit about Ford when the press campaign became too much to ignore, but her main answer to him, and to anyone else who wants a crack at her, has been to steadily and cheerfully exploit the power of her office to make herself harder to dislodge.

A lot of people will talk about what Ford did wrong, but in the end there wasn't a lot he could do. His quasi-entrance into the race, despite the friendly efforts of people who were really looking to damage Gillibrand ("the image of her as a mediocrity is beginning to harden"), instantly made him rather than Gillibrand the story, and he didn't benefit from it.

It may be that big-time Democratic Party muscle got to Ford, too, as it has with other Gillibrand challengers. But it's becoming increasingly clear that the lady can take care of herself.

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