Image: Ford
Mark Humphrey  /  AP
It will be hard for Harold Ford to escape more conservative past, which is well-documented on video and in voting records.
updated 1/15/2010 5:25:28 PM ET 2010-01-15T22:25:28

The last time Harold Ford Jr. ran for the U.S. Senate, he spoke proudly about his pickup truck, his "friend" President George W. Bush, his support for Chief Justice John Roberts and a voting record that "doesn't describe a liberal."

As a candidate in conservative Tennessee, the five-term Democratic congressman asked voters for their prayers, quoted Scripture on the trail and filmed a campaign ad while walking among the wooden pews of his Baptist church in Memphis.

But now he has his eye on challenging Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, a left-leaning state where many of those views and traits risk turning off primary-election voters, who tend to be the most liberal.

Analysts said Ford, if he decides to run, will struggle to shape an image that will appeal to New Yorkers after the time he spent grooming himself to attract red-state voters in Tennessee.

"He's not that well known to New Yorkers, and what they know, many may not be comfortable with in terms of the issues," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll. "Can he overcome this laundry list of positions that are very unlike New York Democratic primary voter positions?"

Recent shift to left
Ford, who moved to New York after losing the Senate bid in Tennessee, has already shifted to the left recently. He said he has changed his mind on issues including his beliefs that gay marriage is wrong and that illegal immigrants should be deported if caught.

Instead of choosing a conservative Baptist church in New York City, he attends a liberal Presbyterian church in the bohemian Manhattan bastion of Greenwich Village that embraces worshippers of all types, including gays.

But it will be hard to escape his more conservative past, which is well-documented on video and in voting records that can be easily exploited by his opponent and the party establishment that supports her.

During one 2006 Senate debate, Ford referred to Bush as "my friend."

"He calls me 'Fordy' and I call him 'My President,'" Ford told Tennessee voters. "We both are Christians, and I happen to like the guy personally."

He also said he supported Roberts, Bush's 2005 pick for the Supreme Court. Neither of New York's Democratic senators at the time, Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, voted to confirm Roberts.

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In another debate between Ford and his Republican opponent, Bob Corker, who eventually won, both candidates were asked, "What do you believe about abortion, and what would you do about it as a U.S. senator?"

Video: Ford on criticism of possible Senate run Corker called himself "pro-life." Ford echoed that, adding that children should be taught "character education" in schools. He has explained that as a program teaching kids to live not only healthily, but also "morally."

He has also voted to require minors to get parental consent for abortions, and to ban a procedure that involves partially delivering a fetus before aborting it.

Ford moved to New York City and took a job with Merrill Lynch & Co. after he lost the race in Tennessee.

He does have the benefit of facing an opponent in the primary election who is not exactly a classic party-line liberal and who underwent an issues makeover herself.

Gillibrand's politics
Gillibrand was serving her second term as a congresswoman from a rural, Republican-leaning district when Gov. David Paterson appointed her to the Senate seat vacated when Clinton became secretary of state.

Gillibrand was a steadfast gun-rights advocate — earning a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association — and also opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants.

But as she went from representing one district to the entire state, she said repeatedly she was "willing to listen" to different views, and some of her positions have changed — perhaps with an eye on her own re-election bid.

Video: Who will liberal Dems support in N.Y. race? She voted with gun-control advocates on some legislation last year, including a proposed law that would have let people carry hidden guns in 48 states if they had a concealed weapon permit in any one of them.

Gillibrand adviser Jefrey Pollock said Ford's "extreme views ... will not appeal to Democratic voters in New York."

Most of New York's delegation, and the Obama administration, has publicly supported Gillibrand since Ford announced interest in the race. He has said he will decide next month whether to run.

He also has begun to address the disconnect between what he used to say and what New Yorkers might want to hear.

In a piece appearing in Tuesday's New York Post, he said he has changed his mind and supports gay marriage, and insisted he has always been "pro-choice."

The NRA member also said he is committed to promoting gun safety and handgun control.

But he said in a 2007 speech to the NRA that a ban on handguns in the District of Columbia was "wrong," which puts him at odds with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

He also said that "just because you're outside your home doesn't mean you give up your right to protect yourself."

A questioner during a 2006 debate asked Ford about his record, ticking off several of his conservative views and votes, including his support for school prayer and a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"I know one thing," Ford said at the time, "it doesn't describe a liberal."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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