In mid-December, New York's junior senator seemed to be running in place. Eleven months after Kirsten Gillibrand was plucked from relative obscurity to fill Hillary Rodham Clinton's seat, she struggled with low poll numbers, had little name recognition, and was a tempting target for Democrats mulling a primary challenge.
And then along came Harold Ford Jr.
Ford, the former Tennessee congressman, began publicly weighing a primary challenge in early January, and since then, Gillibrand's stock has only increased. In less than two months, the percentage of New Yorkers who said they hadn't heard enough about her dropped from 58 percent to 44 percent. Equally important, her popularity has held up, with a 33 percent to 22 percent favorable/unfavorable split. (Ford, meanwhile, is virtually unknown to 70 percent of voters.)
"It's been a benefit to her because she's meeting more of the public when they have never met her and seen her before," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic political consultant and former campaign strategist for Bill Clinton.
That boost was badly needed after Gillibrand did a poor job introducing herself to New Yorkers in 2009. From Jan. 26, a few days after her appointment, to Dec. 15, shortly before Ford's noisemaking, the number of voters who said they didn't know enough about her to form an opinion dropped just 5 percentage points, from 63 percent to 58 percent.
Even more remarkable is that in less than two months, Ford has handed Gillibrand the liberal credentials she spent most of 2009 trying to cultivate. When she was appointed, she was the NRA-backed, upstate moderate. Left-leaning downstate Reps. Steve Israel, Carolyn McCarthy and Carolyn Maloney smelled blood in the water early on and threatened primary challenges.
Sen. Charles Schumer and the White House strong-armed those challengers out of the race, but Gillibrand continued to have trouble burnishing her liberal bona fides. She spent the summer banging the drum on "don't ask, don't tell" and fought the anti-abortion Stupak amendment to the health care reform bill. But those battles didn't translate into more visibility in the polls.
By mounting an attack from her right, however, Ford has made Gillibrand seem liberal in comparison. His disastrous interviews with the New York Times and Stephen Colbert highlighted his votes against gay marriage and abortion rights, and Gillibrand's anonymous toiling on those issues last year is now paying dividends. Her camp can hardly believe its good fortune.
"The areas where he is most vulnerable and most out of step with New Yorkers are areas where she has led in her first year in the Senate," said Gillibrand spokesman Matt Canter.
It's already boosted Gillibrand's favorability numbers with Democrats. New York Democrats were initially apprehensive about Gillibrand -- she was more popular with Republicans after her appointment. But they've come around in a hurry in the last two months.
In the December poll, before Ford arrived on the scene, Gillbrand had a 34 percent to 7 percent favorable/unfavorable split among state Democrats. By Feb. 3, she had pushed those favorables to a 41-9 split. She has also held steady with independents and become less popular with Republicans, which is, perversely, a good sign.
"The last thing we thought was that she'd have a primary from her right, and it may actually be a blessing in disguise for her because she has this opportunity to highlight the areas where she is actually more in tune with Democratic primary voters, like issues of choice and gay rights," Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., told NationalJournal.com. "This potential primary challenge has thrown those issues into relief."
With Gillibrand surging, other potential Democratic challengers have faded into the background. Former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson has opted to gear up for another mayoral bid in 2013. Israel, after reportedly flirting again with the idea of entering the race in January, now looks unlikely to do so.
Even Ford's camp tacitly acknowledges, amid its withering attacks, that Ford's potential challenge has made Gillibrand a better candidate.
"If the unelected senator is suddenly now putting the needs of New Yorkers ahead of what Washington insiders tell her to do, such as focus on job creation, because Harold is thinking of running for Senate, then that's clear evidence that New Yorkers haven't been getting what they deserve," said Ford spokesman Davidson Goldin.
Ford's campaign, meanwhile, has not gained much ground. He trails Gillibrand 42 percent to 16 percent among registered Democrats, according to a Siena Research Institute poll released Monday. He has said he will decide whether to jump into the race by the end of the month.
Certainly, a primary fight would present financial challenges. But Gillibrand has proved an effective fundraiser; she brought in $7.1 million last year, and every day she adds to the ramparts of campaign cash that make her seat that much tougher to storm.
She might also emerge bruised from a primary battle. But if Ford goes much more negative, voters may recoil. Ford has already dismissed the senator as a "parakeet," and a spokesman called her a "desperate liar." Any further and it could recall the infamous debate in the 2000 New York Senate race, when then-Rep. Rick Lazio walked over to Hillary Clinton's podium and thrust a campaign pledge in her face, upsetting many female voters.
Ford's camp, though, said it won't rein in the attacks. In rejecting the historical analogy, Goldin took the opportunity to throw another roundhouse.
"I think comparing Hillary Clinton to Kirsten Gillibrand," he said, "is an insult to Hillary Clinton."