Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) makes a point at a news conference on… (Scott Applewhite, Associated…)
LAREDO, Texas — At an intimate gathering in this border town, Nancy Pelosi was a whirlwind of urgency, a reminder of the force she once was as speaker of the House.
Evening was falling, and this was the third stop in what would be a 12-hour day. On pointy heels in a pale cream-colored suit, the 72-year-old grandmother of nine showed no sign of exhaustion.
"That's what we're talking about: Reigniting the American dream, building ladders of opportunity for people who work hard, play by the rules, take responsibility," she told Democratic donors at the historic La Posada Hotel.
In her 25th year in Congress, Pelosi has embarked on a seemingly improbable drive to retake the House majority and — though she will not say so — return as speaker. Analysts predict Democrats will fall short. But the ever-undaunted Pelosi, pleased by the numerology of her anniversary and the seats required for the majority, employs a catchy slogan: "25 in 25."
This could be Pelosi's last stand, a final, determined effort to go out swinging, preparing one day to leave Washington not as the fallen speaker demonized by the conservative right, but as a political powerhouse.
"We will have no regrets," Pelosi said last week before taping "The Daily Show" in New York, one stop in a sprint through a dozen cities for House candidates. "We have a number of races that are close or could go either way. That means we could win — or just fall short."
On Capitol Hill, the questions remain: If Democrats fail to retake the House, will the first female speaker stay? And if she does, will the party keep her as its leader?
One well-placed Democratic source, who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, earlier this year predicted a "50-50 chance she tends to other gardens," but others believe she will remain.
Those who know Pelosi cannot imagine she is ready to leave her political machine. When she won in a special election, she never intended to become a lifer. But she has become an irrepressible political force.
Many in Washington did not expect Pelosi to stick around after Democrats in 2010 suffered the biggest midterm loss for either party since 1938, sweeping Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) into the speaker's office. Most ousted speakers have stepped aside. In 2011,18 Democrats voted against her as leader.
Now, up-and-coming Democrats have begun jockeying for leadership roles farther down the ladder. Pelosi declined to discuss her plans except to say she would serve another term if reelected as the congresswoman from San Francisco, which is all but certain.
The reality is that no Democrat has clearly emerged in the House who can outwork, out-maneuver or out-fundraise Pelosi. In Washington, she has done more than any other Democratic lawmaker to bankroll the party's electoral chances.
Over the last 22 months, Pelosi has participated in more than 650 fundraising events, raising nearly $72 million for House Democrats. Since 2002, she has raised nearly $315 million for Democrats.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip — and next in line for the leader's post — has raised a fraction of that amount this election cycle.
The choice to stay or go will be hers, many Democratic lawmakers said.
"It will be largely her own decision," said Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), No. 4 in party leadership. "The big question is, absent her — that void. If we're feeling like we're behind now, take Nancy Pelosi out of the equation."
In her Capitol office this year — where she had the smoke residue scrubbed from the walls after Boehner and his cigarettes moved out — Pelosi settled onto an elegant yellow sofa and kept an eye on four televisions with images of news and the House floor.
"All I'm doing is trying to win for the Democrats," she said. "This is the time to win it back, because I think if they get validated, it's going to be a terrible situation."
A deeply polarizing political figure, Pelosi is seen by some as one of the nation's most powerful speakers and by others as a caricature of a "left coast" liberal. Her clenched smile and rambling speeches in Washington leave allies shaking their heads. But on the road, Pelosi speaks with grace and conviction.
Pelosi's intensity is part of what drove the most productive Congress in a generation — with not only passage of healthcare legislation, but also bills to guarantee equal pay for women and rein in credit card companies.
Lawmakers describe her tenacity in deeply personal ways. She stops colleagues on the House floor and asks for a word. Part mother of five, part powerful politician, she lets no one wiggle away. Some see this as her iron grip. Others view it as her genius for building support to pass bills.
"She's able to step on feet without messing up people's shine," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.).
Critics of Pelosi's tenure say the legislative onslaught was part of the party's undoing, that Americans grew exhausted by an activist government at a time of economic uncertainty.
"It was just too much for the country to swallow," said former Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater), who voted against Pelosi for leader.
If Pelosi were to become speaker again, neither her intensity nor approach would probably change.
"This is all about purpose and an urgency and an understanding that it's all perishable, a phrase she uses quite often," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). "When you have the opportunity, take it."
Democrats, even if they do not reclaim the majority, will almost certainly add to their ranks. Boehner has had to rely on Democrats to approve must-pass bills in the face of solid conservative opposition. And he may need them even more next year.
Pelosi might want to be the power broker steering those votes.