He was the youngest member of Congress, elected to a House seat that appeared his for life. But it has always been clear that Harold Ford Jr. had his sights set on a stage larger than Memphis.

Ambitious and raised on politics, he is now 32 and striving to succeed Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.

"He's perceived already as one of the young, up-and-coming leaders of the Democratic Party," said Ken Holland, a political science professor at the University of Memphis. "I think he'd like to be a U.S. senator. Of course, also his ambition, I think, would be to be president."

Ford was 26 when first elected to Congress. He took a break from campaigning to study for law school exams.

He followed in the footsteps of his father, Rep. Harold Ford Sr., who in 1974 was the youngest House member when he was elected at 29. Ford Sr. made history by becoming the state's first black congressman. Only one other black person has been elected to Tennessee's congressional delegation since -- his son, who succeeded him.

The elder Ford and his brother, John, a state senator, built the city's strongest and most active political organization. Memphis, which is predominantly black, now has black county and city mayors, and a black majority on the city council.

When the younger Ford ran to succeed his father, he put out political signs that simply said "Jr." in large white letters on a blue background. Everyone knew who that was.

He was elected with 62 percent of the vote and with 80 percent the next time out. He has been unopposed the past two elections.

Unlike his father, who came to power with a combative "us-against-them" approach, the younger Ford has sought to build coalitions across racial and political lines.

Though born in Memphis, the younger Ford moved to Washington with his family at age 9. He graduated from St. Albans, a prep school that attracts many children of lawmakers and other government officials.

He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and from the University of Michigan Law School in 1996.

He was keynote speaker for the Democratic Convention in 2000 when Al Gore, also from Tennessee, became the party's presidential candidate.

Ford toyed with challenging Republican Sen. Bill Frist two years ago but decided it was still too early to try for a statewide race.

But he has worked hard at building name recognition. People magazine named him one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" last year, and he has appeared often on national TV and radio shows.