GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain drew applause and guffaws by referring to Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy” during a debate last week. Her reaction? “Really, it’s another one of those clueless statements — clueless in that you don’t say something like that,” she said in a wide-ranging interview in her office. “I don’t know that he had any malicious intent, but it trivialized the fact that I was speaker of the House.”

You can disagree with the House minority leader, of course, or spend at least $65 million running 161,203 ads against her, as Republicans did in the past election cycle. But she hasn’t been slowed or trivialized. Even out of power now and with approval ratings that suggest those ads portraying her as the Wicked Witch found an audience, Pelosi has worked overtime to take back the House — attending 311 fundraising events nationwide and bringing home $26 million for Democrats.

Last week, the California congresswoman hit five cities in five days, barnstorming for money to try to win the 25 more seats it would take to regain control. And if that happens — or when, according to her — at the top of her to-do list, she says, will be “doing for child care what we did for health-care reform” — pushing comprehensive change.

There’s a bit of symmetry to that: Amid allegations that he has been disrespectful to women, Cain refers to the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history as a princess. And when Pelosi takes a shot based on gender, she’s not afraid to mention that next on her agenda is the mother of all women’s issues: child care. Under fire for health-care legislation that conservatives consider a big-government power grab, she’s happy to promise more of the same.

Of the need for child-care legislation, she says, “I could never get a babysitter — have five kids in six years and no one wants to come to your house. . . . And everywhere I go, women say the same thing” about how hard it is to find the kind of reliable care that would make their family lives calmer and work lives more productive. When it comes to “unleashing women” in a way that would boost the economy, she says, “this is a missing link.”

Congress did pass such a bill, in 1971, but President Richard M. Nixon vetoed it because he thought it would undermine families and force them to put children in government-run centers.

“One of the great pieces of unfinished business is high-quality child care; I wonder why we just can’t do that,’’ Pelosi said. Her spokesman Drew Hammill said later that she doesn’t have a specific child-care proposal at the ready; that’s what the legislative process is for. But the Nixon-era legislation of which she spoke approvingly subsidized child care for low-income parents and was available to anyone who wanted to pay for it. “She sees this as the next big problem to tackle,’’ Hammill said.

On ‘princess’ theme

Asked what she thought of the cheering that followed Cain’s mention of “Princess Nancy,” she said: “This is the same audience that gave [Rick] Perry a standing ovation when no one knew what he was on.”

The “princess” theme carried through, some of her fellow congresswomen thought, in a segment Sunday on “60 Minutes” about stock trades by members of Congress — because it showed footage of her looking regal in a purple evening gown. On the substance of that piece, she calls the charge that she went easy on credit card companies after participating in a Visa initial public offering a classic case of attacking her strength: “We passed the biggest consumer protection in the history of our country,’’ two years later. The original bill didn’t go anywhere not because she buried it, she said, but because it was reported out of committee only a day before the 2008 session adjourned, “on the same day we passed TARP, one of the hardest” and heaviest lifts of her career.

But the visual of Pelosi in an evening gown seems to grate more than the insinuations: “I was on the plane” when the segment was broadcast Sunday, she said, “but when they were advertising for health-care reform, I did see the dress — the gown, the gown, the gown. Our women members thought it was sexist.”

“It’s sad for ‘60 Minutes,’ because they were up here,” she said, raising her hand to show the highest level, and now, she added it’s just another tabloid.

On harassment

The 2012 GOP presidential race, she said, “is a ‘Survivor’ kind of a contest.” When asked about fellow former speaker Newt Gingrich’s surge in opinion polls, she says, “No — I,’’ then checks herself. “I don’t even go to that place, but I’d be interested what support he can sustain.”

On the topic of the sexual harassment that Cain has been accused of, Pelosi said she has never experienced anything like that. “I came in as a mom of five, and shall we say an older woman. I never even saw any behavior like that — and I never was a target of it, no; I was married very young.’’

Still, she considers the current conversation about harassment a kind of tipping point: “There are certain things I thought we had said were out of the question” and now, she said, that has been made even clearer.

On abortion

Pelosi recently was criticized for the way she characterized a bill to amend Republican-proposed conscience exemptions for health-care reform that allow providers to refuse to perform abortions. Pelosi called the measure, which passed last month with some help from Democrats, “savage,’’ and said, “When the Republicans vote for this bill today, they will be voting to say that women can die on the floor and health-care providers do not have to intervene, if this bill is passed. It’s just appalling.”

In retrospect, does she think that assessment went too far? Not at all, she said: “They would” let women die on the floor, she said. “They would! Again, whatever their intention is, this is the effect.’’

Catholic health-care providers in particular have long said they’d have to go out of business without the conscience protections that Pelosi says amount to letting hospitals “say to a woman, ‘I’m sorry you could die’ if you don’t get an abortion.” Those who dispute that characterization “may not like the language,’’ she said, “but the truth is what I said. I’m a devout Catholic and I honor my faith and love it . . . but they have this conscience thing’’ that she insists put women at physical risk, although Catholic providers strongly disagree.

On one occasion, she said, laughing, one of her critics on the topic of abortion, speaking on the House floor, said, “Nancy Pelosi thinks she knows more about having babies than the pope. They think like this. And of course I do — I think the pope would agree — and I know more than you, too, mister.’’

Pelosi kept talking right through the last bell for a mid-afternoon vote, but before dashing out at the last possible minute, she flashed a thumbs-up: “Child care,” she said. “We’re going to do it.’’

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