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Originally published October 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 22, 2006 at 12:11 AM

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Iron-fisted Pelosi positions Democrats to win House

On election night 2004, Nancy Pelosi faced a painful reality: Her party was again a big loser, failing to win the presidency and losing...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — 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 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 raise taxes if her party were back in control.

On his Web site, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-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. Dick 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 nonthreatening, 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 Peterson, D-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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This summer, as Republicans were demonizing Pelosi as a liberal liability, Peterson invited her to his rural district — where she looked comfortable eating a pork chop on a stick and vowed to direct energy money to the Midwest instead of the Mideast.

Colleagues say Pelosi's polished Pacific Heights exterior belies an iron-fist management style. One of her first moves as leader was to take control over who gets seats on the most coveted committees — Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Energy and Commerce.

The newspaper Roll Call said in December that Pelosi threatened to remove Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., from the Energy and Commerce Committee for siding with Republicans on a key trade bill. And despite objections from the Congressional Black Caucus and others, she demanded the removal of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., from the Ways and Means Committee after authorities caught him on tape accepting $100,000, allegedly in bribe money. The ousting of Jefferson startled even Republicans.

Pelosi's biggest challenge was in trying to forge a consensus on the war in Iraq, a near-impossible task given the sharp divisions among Democrats in the House and Senate and the political danger of openly challenging Bush on the war. She had been highly critical of Gephardt's support for the war in the fall of 2002 and helped line up 126 Democratic votes against the resolution authorizing an invasion of Iraq.

But as the new minority leader, Pelosi knew she could not impose her views on her caucus and instead initially took the position that it was the Republicans' war, for the Republicans to fix. Privately, however, she spent months conferring with Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated Vietnam War veteran and prominent voice on military matters, who had voted for the war but was now souring on it. Pelosi knew that her voice would not be as credible as Murtha's.

The two planned Murtha's surprise turnaround a year ago, when he demanded immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Two weeks later, Pelosi followed his lead.

Should the Democrats win in November, Pelosi said, their new majority will push for the immediate start of a phased withdrawal of troops, to be completed by the end of 2007.

At the same time, she said, the new majority would quickly move to raise the minimum wage, allow the government to negotiate directly with drug companies for lower prices for seniors, repeal corporate incentives to take jobs overseas, make college tuition tax-deductible and implement all the recommendations of the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks.

Some Democrats complain that Pelosi relies on too tight a coterie of advisers. "The biggest complaint is that if you were not with her in the beginning, you can't get in," a former leadership aide said.

After studiously avoiding cooperating with the Republican leadership for years, she has vowed to reach out to Republicans and be more inclusive. She said, for example, that she would allow Republicans to bring bills to the floor and have a say in conference committees. But many are skeptical.

"That would not happen," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. "I have never seen Nancy Pelosi reach out to a Republican."

Pelosi was first elected to the House at age 47, after she raised her five children. She grew up as a member of a prominent Maryland political family and developed an interest in politics at an early age. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was mayor of Baltimore for 12 years, and her brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, later served as mayor for four years.

In 2001, she successfully challenged the old-boys network by running for minority whip against the favored Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., because, she said, she saw "more of the same" ahead for Democrats.

She quickly consolidated her power, sending a strong message to those she saw as adversaries. "If someone is her enemy, she shuts them out," Murtha said.

In describing her dealings with fellow Democrats, Pelosi said members "mistake sometimes my courtesy for a lack of strength, and they ought not to do that."

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