This much is all but certain: Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) will lose an election Thursday, which will be a new experience for him.

Ford, 32, announced last week he would run for the post of House Democratic leader. On the same day, Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), his fellow moderate, dropped out of the race and conceded that liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had more than enough votes to succeed outgoing Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Ford was undeterred, reinforcing his image as a young man in a hurry. But in a hurry to get where?

He certainly reached the House in a hurry, at 26, one year over the Constitution's 25-year-old minimum for House membership. But it's not as if he had to battle to get so far so fast. His congressional district, which encompasses most of Memphis, was represented for 22 years by his father, Harold Ford Sr. In 1996, the first election year his son was old enough, the senior Ford turned it over to the next generation.

In that way, Ford resembles his friend and fellow Tennessean, former vice president Al Gore, who also followed his father into Congress. They both largely grew up in Washington, where both attended the exclusive prep school St. Albans. Like Gore, Ford attended an Ivy League college; in Ford's case, the University of Pennsylvania. Ford later graduated from the University of Michigan Law School.

Ford's family members also have served on the Memphis City Council, County Commission and in the Tennessee legislature. Last year, People magazine named him one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World." He delivered the keynote address at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

In short, Ford is accustomed to winning. Yet virtually no one believes his late-starting leadership campaign has a chance of overtaking Pelosi. In this case, it may not matter, say some who have followed his career.

"I don't take [Ford's] candidacy seriously," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "His object is not to win this race, but to position himself for something else."

Ford has made no secret of his ambition for higher office. He publicly considered running for the Senate in 2000 but backed down from a race eventually won by former Tennessee governor and two-time presidential aspirant Lamar Alexander (R). In Tennessee, said University of Memphis political scientist Kenneth M. Holland, Ford's unexpected entry into the leadership race is seen as part of a pattern aimed at higher office.

"He's been very pleased by the amount of media attention he's gotten" from his challenge to Pelosi, Holland said. "It has advanced his goals."

Ford has always set himself apart. An African American, he joined the Congressional Black Caucus, which includes some of the House's most liberal lawmakers. But Ford has also associated himself with the House's "Blue Dog" Democrats, the party's more moderate and conservative lawmakers.

"He represents a different generation and a different political outlook than most senior members of the Black Caucus," Mann said.

When Ford announced his bid for minority leader, he cast the battle in generational terms. He said his candidacy represented "the only true change that's in this race." He said repeatedly how much he liked and respected Pelosi, but he lumped her with "the same old ways of the past" that, he said, had produced a "kind of obstructionist opposition" that voters rejected last week.

"The party elders are 0 and 4," Ford said, referring to the four elections in which the Democrats tried and failed to regain the House majority they lost in 1994.

Ford was vague when asked where he thought he would get support for his challenge to Pelosi. The Black Caucus has not formally endorsed a candidate, but its chairwoman, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), endorsed Pelosi before Ford jumped into the contest and has not changed her position. The House's senior black member, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), said it was time for a woman to be in the Democratic leadership and he chastised Ford for supporting the resolution giving President Bush authority to go to war against Iraq.

By jumping into the race just as Frost withdrew, Mann said, Ford angered many Democrats and may have miscalculated how the challenge to Pelosi will affect his political future.

"We'll see if this effort helps or hinders his long-term ambitions," Mann said. "My guess is that he's fighting the wrong battle at the wrong time."

Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) is running, but what is his real goal?