WASHINGTON — Throughout election day, Nancy Pelosi appeared focused and confident, as though a Democratic victory were a fait accompli. Then the returns started coming in, and the Democrats started gaining House seats quickly. When Republican Nancy Johnson of Connecticut went down to defeat, an aide said, Pelosi dropped her calm facade and let out a shriek.
When the moment finally came, when the television projections declared the Democrats had won the House, she hugged her husband and repeated over and over: "I can't believe it."
Then she exchanged high-fives with Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, her co-architect on the Democrats' victory strategy.
The solid victory by her party leaves the House minority leader poised to become the first female speaker of the House, the highest elected post ever held by a woman in America.
Her victory capped an expensive and nasty campaign in which Republicans vilified her as a shrill liberal from wacky San Francisco who stood for higher taxes and a cowardly policy on national defense. But attempts to cast her as the villain mostly fell flat. Hardly anybody in middle America knew who she was.
That is about to change.
With Newsweek and Time magazines ready with photos of her for their covers, Pelosi is poised to emerge from the political trenches as the national face of the Democratic Party. The 66-year-old grandmother of five is to be charged with unifying a diverse and fractious bunch of Democrats from across the ideological spectrum, while working with a president not inclined to compromise.
"The campaign is over. Democrats are ready to lead," she said in her victory speech. "Mr. President, we need a new direction in Iraq. Let us work together to find a solution."
In a Capitol Hill ballroom decorated with a banner declaring "A New Direction for America," the slogan Pelosi pushed throughout the campaign, giddy Democrats celebrated not only the end of the GOP's 12-year reign in the House but the likelihood that a woman will finally break another male-dominated barrier in Washington.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," rejoiced Ann Perse, a 67-year-old retired healthcare professional, waving an American flag in the packed ballroom. "It says this country wants a change and we are willing to put the guidance of that change in the hands of a very competent woman. It's about time."
Tuesday's election was a significant turn of events for Pelosi, who ran for Congress at age 47 after raising five children. It was a rather late start for a career that, after 19 years in the House, is on the verge of making history.
Since being elected minority leader nearly four years ago, Pelosi -- the most prolific Democratic fundraiser in Congress -- has raised $100 million, half of that in this election cycle alone.
Pelosi has also brought discipline and unity to an unruly band of Democrats accustomed to going their own way, an important component in toppling a GOP that once seemed invincible. She demanded party unity and got it -- even on contentious issues like energy policy and Social Security -- 88% of the time.
Come January, her challenge will be to hold them together in the majority, this diverse group of liberal and conservative Democrats that she hopes will hit the ground with the "New Direction" agenda she's been promoting: an increase in the minimum wage, lower Medicare prescription drug prices and a new plan for Iraq.
Well before the voting began, fights were already brewing as Democrats jockeyed to divide the spoils. It will be Pelosi's challenge to make sure the newly empowered party doesn't dissolve into bitter factions.
She'll have her work cut out for her. Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, the hawkish ex-Marine who gave criticism of the Iraq war credibility, is expected to challenge Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, Pelosi's one-time nemesis, in the race for majority leader.
James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, chairman of the Democratic caucus, is the likely candidate to move up to whip. But sitting in the wings is Pelosi's partner in strategy, the hard-charging Emanuel who may want to lay claim to a leadership post.