WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is proving to be the Republicans' favorite election-year villain — and a nightmare for some centrist Democrats who are struggling to survive politically.
The GOP's "Fire Pelosi 2010 Bus Tour" is in its third week of roaming the country, stopping for rallies in key congressional districts. Republican-inspired ads in closely contested congressional districts paint Pelosi, D-Calif., as a stone-faced, GOP-hating promoter of big government and big liberalism. Some moderate Democrats are running ads distancing themselves from her and are openly questioning whether she should lead them next year.
"She's such an easy target," said Brad Coker, the managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which surveys states nationwide.
It's hardly unusual in nonpresidential years for one party to demonize the other side's congressional leaders: Republicans mocked House Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Mass., in 1982, and Democrats tried the same tactic in 1998 with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
However, they were the most visible, powerful figures in their parties in election years when the president was from the rival party. This year, President Barack Obama and Pelosi are both Democrats, as is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
So why is Pelosi the GOP target of choice?
Because "she has become the face of what everybody doesn't like about Congress," said Scott Jennings, the deputy political director for President George W. Bush and now a Louisville, Ky., GOP strategist.
Pelosi, who's been the speaker of the House of Representatives since 2007, has employed some highly visible hardball partisan tactics to get controversial measures approved. In the last 21 months, she's muscled through bills that overhauled the nation's health care system, provided $814 billion in economic stimulus, revamped the financial regulatory system and attempted to restrain global warming.
The very qualities that make her a strong speaker — decisiveness, hardball partisanship and her willingness to impose tough discipline on her members — often don't play well during election campaigns, when voters want more empathy and civility.
"She's getting a lot of the blame because of her manner," said David Dittman, a political consultant based in Anchorage, Alaska.
Some criticism of Pelosi may be calculated to appeal to those who resent women rising to positions of authority formerly reserved to men, but at least one analyst thinks she's a lightning rod more for her ideology than her gender.
"Her problem is she's seen as a San Francisco liberal," said Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center. Her trouble, West said, is not so much that she's a woman as "it could be that she has a problem being a liberal woman. Conservatives have no problem with conservative women," such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and several prominent Republican female candidates in this year's elections, he noted. "Gender is less important to them than ideology."
She also fits conveniently into the Republican message that government is too big and liberals are running wild. Pelosi, Obama and Reid represent the "nexus of liberalism," said Sal Russo, the Sacramento, Calif.-based political guru who's behind the Tea Party Express, which has helped boost several conservative GOP candidates this year.
Pelosi dismisses the Republican campaign against her as little more than standard partisan rhetoric, and says that moderate Democrats' reservations about her leadership are nothing new.
When it was noted that the GOP is raising a lot of money with its anti-Pelosi campaign, Pelosi, speaking to journalists, said, "So am I,'' as the GOP tactic seems to be firing up once-complacent Democrats.
Asked for her reaction to some centrist Democrats' calls during their campaigns for her to leave the speakership, Pelosi called such talk "not a new thing. This is politics. And I want them to win their election. I don't care. It's not about me. It's about the middle class."
Despite such campaign-season disloyalty from some Democrats in conservative districts, Pelosi's leadership doesn't appear to be in jeopardy. The rhetoric simply reflects that Democrats in swing districts feel a need to separate themselves from the speaker.
- In Texas, Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards has been running an ad that tells voters, "When President Obama and Nancy Pelosi pressured Chet Edwards, Chet stood up to them and voted no against their trillion-dollar health care bill, and no to cap and trade," the legislation aimed at curbing global warming.
- In Pennsylvania, an ad from Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire features voters talking about his independence. "I like that Jason Altmire is not afraid to stand up to the president," one man says. "And Nancy Pelosi," a woman quickly adds.
- In North Carolina, Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre says in an ad, "I don't work for Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or anyone else. I work for you."
- In Tennessee, Democratic candidate Brett Carter wrote Pelosi a letter that urged her to step down as speaker. "Voters in my district believe that you do not represent their values," he said.
Stepping down, Carter wrote, "would show that Democrats are prepared to place the interests of the public ahead of your own aspirations; I believe this message would have a profound impact on the prospects of Democrats across the country this fall."
That won't happen, but Pelosi knows where to avoid showing her face. She's been to 24 states during the current election cycle, and her October schedule has her raising money and appearing for candidates in eight states. She's unlikely to visit those centrist swing districts or others like them, however, to avoid animating voters against the most vulnerable members of her caucus.
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