SAN FRANCISCO — Swarmed by antiwar protesters, Rep. Nancy Pelosi on Saturday called the invasion of Iraq "a grotesque mistake" but rejected calls for President Bush's impeachment.
Shouting to be heard above the boos and catcalls at a rowdy community forum, Pelosi -- the leader of Democrats in the House -- urged her constituents to instead channel their anger and energies into the 2006 midterm elections, when control of Congress will be at stake.
"I think we should solve this electorally," she said, standing on the stage of a school auditorium with roughly three dozen sign-waving demonstrators at her feet.
The two-hour town hall meeting illustrated the precarious position that Pelosi faces as representative of one of the country's most liberal cities and, at the same time, House leader of a party trying desperately to shed its weak-kneed image on defense and national security.
Pelosi has consistently been among Bush's harshest congressional critics, and San Francisco has long been a hotbed of antiwar sentiment -- and, even longer, a hub of liberal activism.
But in Washington, Pelosi upset some fellow Democrats by seconding a call by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within six months. Many in the party oppose the idea and say Pelosi's endorsement took the political target off Bush by shifting debate to a disagreement among Democrats.
Pelosi on Saturday insisted she was speaking only for herself, saying there was no official party position on the war and she would never seek to impose one. Eventually, she predicted, most Democrats would come around to Murtha's position on their own, as pressure grows from their constituents.
"Quite frankly, I think the fact that people have to get to this place in a period of time ... is a healthy thing," Pelosi said.
Many in the audience -- several hundred people who filled the auditorium at Marina Middle School and spilled into an overflow room -- disagreed. They repeatedly challenged the antiwar resolve of Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, in both the written questions they submitted and the criticism they hollered out.
The antagonistic tone was set early on. The first question, read by a moderator, asked why she hadn't supported an end to funding the war. Her response -- that she would not undercut support for U.S. troops -- was quickly drowned out by shouts and chants of "Bring them home" and "No more money for war."
A group of demonstrators then marched down the aisles and stationed themselves in front of the stage, where -- under the close watch of police and Pelosi's bodyguards -- they stood holding protest signs, occasionally heckling the congresswoman for the next 90 minutes.
Pelosi stayed largely unruffled throughout, sometimes chiding those who interrupted her but otherwise ignoring their taunts. She repeated her assertions that invading Iraq had been a mistake and that the country had posed no imminent threat to U.S. security. The result, she said, has been a civil war that has turned Iraq into a breeding ground for anti-American terrorists.
But that failed to appease many in the crowd, who wanted nothing less than the ouster of Bush, who garnered only 14% of the vote in Pelosi's district in 2004.
She sidestepped the impeachment question when it first came up, urging those unhappy with the president to work to elect Democrats instead. But moments later, Pelosi was asked directly about a resolution by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to censure Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and launch a congressional probe into possible impeachment. When she didn't voice support, she was again drowned out by groans and jeers.
Eventually, however, many seemed to tire of the incivility and atmospherics. By the time the forum ended, the cries of "shush" and "let her speak" had overwhelmed the din of protesters.
Her patience seemed to win Pelosi a few fans.
Thomas McDonagh, a 53-year-old tour guide and San Francisco resident, staunchly opposes the war and believes Democrats in Congress have been too timid in opposing the president. But he admired Pelosi for the way she faced down her critics Saturday "and kept on going."
"George Bush, when he has a gathering, everyone checks [attendees] out before they even enter the auditorium," said McDonagh, pulling on a rain slicker to head out into the misty lunch hour. "There's a certain freedom of speech which is incredibly important to the country that she believes in, and that came through."