The New York political world reacted swiftly and strongly to the possibility of Harold Ford Jr.’s candidacy for the United States Senate, with top Senate leaders trying to squash the bid and close advisers to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg meeting with Mr. Ford on Thursday to plot strategy for a campaign.
The developments reflect the seriousness with which Mr. Ford is being viewed as he weighs whether to challenge Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand in this fall’s Democratic primary.
On Wednesday night, Senator Charles E. Schumer, who has aggressively sought to eliminate potential rivals to Ms. Gillibrand, met with Mr. Ford to try to dissuade him from running, according to two people who were told of the meeting and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the conversation was supposed to be kept private. The next day, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, called Mr. Bloomberg, and expressed concern about the reports of a possible Ford bid for the Senate, and asked if the mayor or his top political aides were behind the effort.
Mr. Bloomberg, speaking on his cellphone on a drive to an event, reassured Mr. Reid that he was not personally involved in the effort to promote a Ford candidacy, according to a senior Democratic official and an aide to the mayor. But Mr. Bloomberg also told Senator Reid that Ms. Gillibrand, with whom he has at times clashed, was vulnerable and would undoubtedly face a challenger, whether it was Mr. Ford or someone else.
But around the same time that Mr. Bloomberg was distancing himself from the Ford effort, two of his top campaign strategists met with Mr. Ford, 39, for lunch at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. Bradley Tusk, who managed Mr. Bloomberg successful mayoral re-election campaign, and Doug Schoen, the mayor’s pollster, provided a detailed portrait of the city’s political landscape to Mr. Ford, a former Tennessee representative, and described to him what a challenge to Ms. Gillibrand would involve. The senator, appointed by Gov. David A. Paterson last year, has never run statewide, but is considered a prodigious fund-raiser.
Mr. Tusk confirmed the meeting. Mr. Ford declined to be interviewed.
Ms. Gillibrand’s allies, meanwhile, are striking back at Mr. Ford, asserting that he is out of step with New York’s Democratic voters, given his record in Tennessee. Abortion rights groups argued that Ms. Gillibrand would be a stronger advocate on their issues, gay rights groups pointed to his opposition to same-sex marriage and unions said what they saw as his pro-business views posed a threat to workers.
“When New York Democrats do hear about his record, they are likely to be disappointed,” said Stuart Appelbaum, who leads a large retail workers’ union.
The meeting between Mr. Schumer and Mr. Ford took place on Wednesday at the senator’s Midtown office. There, the senior senator laid out the challenges that Mr. Ford would face if he decided to run, ticking off the support Ms. Gillibrand enjoys from New York’s elected leaders, unions and many advocacy groups.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Mr. Schumer, confirmed the meeting but declined to say what the two discussed. “They had been planning to meet since last fall, and it was finally scheduled a week ago,” he said.
But even as Ms. Gillibrand’s allies sought to portray Mr. Ford as a bad fit for New York, fresh signs of interest in his candidacy emerged.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who was initially skeptical of Ms. Gillibrand but has warmed to her in recent months, has told associates that he is open to a Ford run, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Ford spoke with Mr. Sharpton about his senate ambitions at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, that person said. Both men arrived to have breakfast with different guests, but chatted warmly for about 10 minutes. Mr. Sharpton did not seek to discourage Mr. Ford from running, and recommended that he begin to reach out to the state’s black leaders and clergy.
Mr. Ford will be the keynote speaker next month at the conference of the state’s Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators. Assemblyman N. Nick Perry, who invited him, predicted that the audience would be receptive to Mr. Ford because of his campaign to become Tennessee’s first black United States Senator.
“I consider him a trailblazer for that effort,” Mr. Perry said.