The Woman Who Would Be Speaker

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi works a phone bank in Sacramento with Phil Angelides, the Democratic candidate for governor of California.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi works a phone bank in Sacramento with Phil Angelides, the Democratic candidate for governor of California. (By Rich Pedroncelli -- Associated Press)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

On election night 2004, Nancy Pelosi faced a painful reality: Her party was again a big loser, failing to win the presidency and losing three more House seats. Pundits were suggesting Pelosi should accept her fate as the leader of a permanent House minority.

But the California legislator had a different idea. Instead, she reached out to advertising executives, Internet moguls and language specialists to ask how Democrats could rise from the ashes and challenge President Bush and the Republicans. The advice that came back was unabashed: "You must take him down" and then hammer away at the differences between the two parties, Pelosi recalled.

Today the Democrats appear capable of taking back leadership of the House after 12 years in the minority, for reasons largely beyond Pelosi's control: an unpopular war, an unpopular president and a series of scandals that have left the Republicans highly vulnerable.

Nevertheless, if the Democrats win, experts say, much credit is due this 66-year-old woman, whose notable fundraising abilities (she raised $50 million this election cycle) and scorched-earth strategy of refusing to negotiate with the GOP have put her on track to become the first woman to be speaker of the House.

Dismissed by her critics as too liberal, too elitist and too lacking in gravitas, Pelosi, serving her 10th term, has proved to be a tough-minded tactician who has led her caucus from the political center and kept the fractious House Democrats in line. Pelosi and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) rarely work together, and the Democrats voted along party lines 88 percent of the time last year -- the most unified voting record in 50 years -- according to a Congressional Quarterly study. By hanging together, the Democrats have thwarted many GOP initiatives, including the centerpiece of Bush's second-term agenda, restructuring Social Security.

That approach, while emboldening the Democrats, has earned Pelosi the enmity of House Republicans, who claim she is an obstructionist. Pelosi, who is married to a wealthy San Francisco businessman and wears designer suits, is a favorite target of conservatives. Throughout the campaign, Republicans have sought to scare voters by portraying Pelosi as a liberal extremist who would be weak on national security and prone to raises taxes if her party were back in control.

On his Web site, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) calls the prospect of Pelosi becoming speaker "just plain scary" and says: "While Republicans fight the War on Terror, . . . House Democrats plot to establish a Department of Peace."

Even before the Democrats' disappointing showing in the 2002 midterm elections, Pelosi began making calls to line up support for a minority-leader bid, in case then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) decided to step aside to run for president. Within days of Gephardt's decision to retire from the House, she locked up the post convincingly, by a vote of 177 to 29.

She took charge with a burst of energy and quickly developed a Democratic message that highlighted shortcomings in the Bush agenda. Later, she criticized the administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. Her strategy was to unite Democrats behind non-threatening, core issues such as the minimum wage, health care, Social Security and energy independence while steering clear of divisive social issues such as abortion rights and gun control.

While Pelosi appears at ease and chatty in informal gatherings, she often comes across as stiff and tentative in public, and she rarely projects well on television. After a halting performance on NBC's "Meet the Press" in May, Pelosi worked with media experts to polish her style and shorten her answers.

Some conservative Democrats say she has given them a voice in forming policy by creating a number of advisory groups that focus on, among other things, rural issues and faith. "It's much easier to hold the party together if the people who feel the most disaffected feel well-treated," said David Rohde, a professor of political science at Duke University.

Rep. Collin C. Peterson (Minn.) is one of those conservatives. "I have always believed that it takes someone of the same political persuasion to convince the folks on the left that we're not going to be able to govern if we don't come to the center," he said.

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