Sunday, February 21, 2010

How Ford Got Gilly in Gear: Potential Rival has Made Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand Tougher, Say Experts by David Saltonstall - NY Daily News

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Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, with Council member Robert Jackson, at left, and Comptroller John Liu, right, runs in the New York Runners' Run for Haiti in Central Park Saturday. Hagen for News

Harold Ford's maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won't stance on jumping into the Senate race has been a boon for one person - his likely opponent, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, experts say.

Consider the dynamic: two months ago, Gillibrand was the little-known Senate appointee whose name many voters couldn't even pronounce, much less find in a newspaper.

If she got press at all, it was because President Obama or Sen. Chuck Schumer had arm-twisted yet another potential Democratic primary challenger into staying out.

Then came Ford, 39, a telegenic former congressman from Tennessee who cast a giant spotlight on the race - and at the same time forced Gillibrand to raise her political game.

"She has become better at the work of being a candidate," observed Hunter College Prof. Ken Sherrill. "And that wouldn't have happened if she hadn't faced a challenge."

Ford has also raised his own profile, going from a little-known Tennessee pol to New York's latest Democrat to watch. He could quit the race tomorrow, many say, and still claim a PR success.

"It just puts his name out there for future elections, whether in New York or elsewhere," said Columbia University Prof. Robert Shapiro.

But it's really Gillibrand - still trying to shake perceptions that she's Schumer's sidekick, and certainly vulnerable to anti-incumbent fervor - who has used the last six weeks to the greatest advantage, experts say.

Since Ford launched his quasi-campaign in early January, she has nailed down coveted endorsements from Democratic county committees in the Bronx and Manhattan, as well as leaders like City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former mayoral contender Bill Thompson.

She successfully cornered President Obama on 9/11 health issues, and her push for a Senate hearing on the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy has won her accolades among gays and their allies.

At the same time, she has put up her dukes - hitting back at Ford every time he jabs, and in the process undercutting her image as a political weakling.

"A fighter becomes better the more sparring they do," said Baruch College political professor Doug Muzzio. "She has become much sharper in the ring."

None of this would have happened, or at least gained this much attention, if Ford hadn't made the race a contest.

"There has been a spotlight on the race, and she is coming off as tougher than expected," said consultant George Arzt. "So from that perspective it is good for her."

It remains unclear whether Ford, a vice chairman at Merrill Lynch, will get into the race or not; he has said he expects to make a decision within the next week or so. But no matter what he decides, some say Gillibrand has already come out ahead.

"If she faced a challenge from Steve Israel or Carolyn Maloney or Scott Stringer," Sherrill said, referring to veteran New York pols dissuaded from running, "they may well be having her for breakfast."

But Gillibrand drew Ford, who has made defending Wall Street banks from further taxation a big campaign theme - a curious pitch to liberal Democratic primary voters.

Cracked Sherrill: "He might as well come out in support of landlords."