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Pelosi Has Lock on House Post

California Democrat, by all accounts, has the votes to win the party leadership job. But her liberal leanings may be fuel for GOP opponents.

November 09, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats rallied behind Rep. Nancy Pelosi as their new leader on Friday, putting the San Francisco liberal in line to become the first woman to lead a party in Congress and the first Californian to do so since the 1950s.

Pelosi, who as the minority whip is already the second-ranking House Democrat, all but clinched the top post after her main challenger ended his bid. Rep. Martin Frost of Texas dropped out of a race that officially lasted barely more than 24 hours.

Frost, who had offered himself as a centrist alternative, pledged to support Pelosi in Thursday's vote among House Democrats to replace outgoing Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

As Frost's candidacy evaporated, another Democrat declared he would oppose Pelosi on a centrist platform. But Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee lacks Pelosi's experience and stature within party circles and was given little chance of success.

"The race is over," Pelosi said at a news conference in San Francisco.

Senior Democrats did not dispute her assertion.

For a party retrenching after Tuesday's stinging electoral losses, the choice of Pelosi should bring immediate payoffs and a good deal of risk.

As a woman in a post held until now only by men, she seems likely to draw more notice than the House minority leader might otherwise expect.

As a solid liberal who forcefully opposes most of President Bush's domestic agenda and who voted against the resolution passed last month authorizing him to use force against Iraq, she may energize the Democratic faithful.

After Tuesday's vote, in which Republicans picked up House seats and took control of the Senate, many Democrats have complained that the party suffered because it did not offer a clear alternative to the Bush administration.

And several Democrats praised her political skills.

"Nancy Pelosi is a very pragmatic politician, and she is smart and savvy and understands the world," said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant. "She will do the best she can to reach out to every aspect of the caucus."

But Pelosi's rise will give Republicans more opportunity to criticize Democrats as being out of touch with much of the country.

"Let the coronation of Congresswoman Pelosi begin -- and the eventual fall of the Democrat Party follow," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

Her record is to the left of Gephardt, a source of worry for some Democrats. Based on an analysis of key congressional votes, the National Journal magazine in 2000 gave her a 94% liberal rating on social issues and 92% on economic issues; Gephardt scored 68% and 84%, respectively.

John Anzalone, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster, expressed concerns about the impact in his region of Pelosi's ascension.

When asked if he would advise a candidate to seek Pelosi's help, Anzalone said: "No. Not a chance. Not because she isn't a good person and does great work, but the bottom line is the [Republicans] demonize her ... and she becomes a campaign issue."

Some House Democrats fretted privately that one or more of their Southern colleagues might bolt the party under Pelosi's leadership, a notion GOP strategists were happy to encourage. There was no word, though, of imminent defections.

Pelosi, at her news conference, claimed to have support from all corners of her party and to have an "overwhelming majority" of the roughly 207 House Democrats who will select their next leader by secret ballot.

To back up her claim, Pelosi made public a list of 111 supporters. The backers included nearly all of the 33 California Democrats who will serve in the new House. Many other Democrats, Pelosi said, back her privately.

One analyst predicted Pelosi's leadership would pose a challenge for Democrats in the nation's relatively small number of truly competitive House districts -- the center-left and center-right terrain where Tuesday's elections were fought and where Republicans generally prevailed.

"It makes it very difficult to sell the national Democratic Party agenda in a place like Texas, for sure," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "Republican candidates down here already ran against people like Hillary and Bill [Clinton]. Pelosi is going to make it worse here and elsewhere."

But many Democrats disputed that view. Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia, a centrist who is a Pelosi backer, said the party had lost touch with many core supporters.

"She's going to be able to broaden the base," Moran said. "She's going to enlist more young people. She's going to be the kind of charismatic spokesperson that's going to get the public's attention."

Pelosi, 62, is by now accustomed to listing precedents on her resume. As minority whip, she is already the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in congressional party leadership.

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