WASHINGTON—Meet the woman Republicans are casting as their new Hillary Clinton, the lady they love to hate.
Although Nancy Pelosi is a 19-year congresswoman, she's little known by voters outside her liberal San Francisco district, even though she's been the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives for the past four years. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, that hasn't meant much, though.
But if Democrats win a majority of House seats on Nov. 7, Pelosi stands to become the first female speaker of the House and the second politician in the line of succession to become president. She then would face a decision: whether to steer the Democratic Party to appease its liberal base or adopt a centrist agenda that would sit better with newly elected Democrats who unseated Republicans in conservative districts—which might put Democrats in a stronger position for the 2008 presidential election.
Suddenly Republicans are trying to make Pelosi a household name—one that embodies what many conservatives and white, male voters dislike most about the Democratic Party—in order to turn out their voters.
In debates, speeches, magazines and a few ads, on talk shows and the Internet, Republicans attack Pelosi as the face of a tax-raising, homosexual-embracing, abortion-promoting, war-fearing, criminal-coddling, government-expanding liberal party that would ruin America if it gains at least 15 seats on Election Day and takes control of the 435-member House.
Pelosi is "the pariah from central casting in some ways," said independent pollster John Zogby, noting that she's a woman who opposed the Iraq war from the start and represents one of the most liberal bastions in the nation.
"She's liberal, much more liberal than Hillary (Clinton)," Zogby said. "We're talking about base politics and what revs up that conservative base. You're (Republicans) going after your base and saying, `Is this what you want?'"
Pelosi is engaging in person, but on television she can come across as harsh and tentative. She isn't nearly as high profile or as polarizing a figure as Clinton, however. A Newsweek poll earlier this month found that half of the adults surveyed had never heard of Pelosi or didn't have an opinion about her. The other half split between favorable and unfavorable impressions.
Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said that demonizing Pelosi is a risky strategy for Republicans, even in red states such as his.
"Going after this historically unprecedented female leader could hurt with female voters more than it's going to help with male voters," Voss said. "They need to worry about worsening the gender gap."
Demonizing one politician to try to affect other races is nothing new. Democrats tried it with Ronald Reagan, and Republicans tried it with the late, liberal House Speaker Tip O'Neill, to name two examples. However, Voss noted, "it doesn't actually work very well" in terms of reaching voters in the middle. "Most of the evidence suggests that the people who hate these demonized figureheads were never going to be supportive of them and their party in the first place."
Just invigorating conservatives may not be enough for Republicans this year; national polls have found that independent voters widely favor Democrats and oppose the Iraq war.
A 66-year-old feminist and mother of five who speaks softly, wears pastel suits and extols the virtues of mother- and grandmother-hood, Pelosi's first impression is non-threatening.
But her allies describe her as a relentless fundraiser and strategist who's been willing to put liberal abortion and gun-control politics on hold for the greater good of her party, and they say she can be ruthless when dealing with opponents.
Her late father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was a five-term congressman from Maryland and a longtime mayor of Baltimore. Her brother also was that city's mayor. Married to an investor, Pelosi is ranked as the ninth-wealthiest House member by the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group, with a fortune estimated at $14.7 million to $55 million.
She's framed her campaign indictment of Republicans carefully, avoiding extremes. While highlighting a string of Republican corruption scandals and advocating troop redeployment from Iraq, she also has said that she wouldn't try to impeach President Bush if she's in charge, and that she wants to work with moderates to raise the minimum wage, expand health care and adopt alternative energy policies.
Her critics doubt that she really wants bipartisanship and predict that she'll tap some of Congress' most liberal members to run key committees.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., last week issued a memo warning of "Nancy Pelosi's plan to raise taxes that would squeeze small businesses and destroy job growth."
Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., the chairman of a homeland security subcommittee, charged that Pelosi would weaken border security.
"What would a San Francisco majority mean for American families?" asked a recent press release from House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. Another listed how many times Pelosi voted to reduce intelligence spending during President Clinton's tenure.
A recent cover of the National Review, a leading conservative opinion magazine, featured an unflattering photo of Pelosi with the caption: "Madam Speaker?"
House GOP Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said a Pelosi-led House would be "just plain scary."
But Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., a member of the moderate-conservative Blue Dog coalition of Democrats, said he looks for Pelosi to lead as "a consensus builder" who positions the party to win the 2008 presidential election.
If some Democrats in Congress try to press a liberal agenda, they'll fail, Cardoza predicted. For one thing, Bush retains veto power. For another, even in a best-case scenario, Senate Democrats won't have a filibuster-proof margin. Last, with 37 Blue Dogs in the House now and hopes for another dozen after Election Day, "if they (liberals) put stuff on the floor that we (Blue Dogs) don't like, it won't pass. Democrats are not going to control the House by more than 50 votes."
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., one of Pelosi's closest supporters despite their differences on social issues and defense spending, dismissed Republicans as "trying to distract from the real issues, from the war."
Murtha, a powerful appropriator who's planning his own campaign for majority leader if Pelosi becomes speaker, initially supported the Iraq war but changed his mind last year.
With Pelosi's blessing, he's used his credibility as a decorated war veteran and military supporter to lead Democrats' call for withdrawing troops from Iraq. "I said, `Let me do this myself because of my background as a hawk,' and she kept the other Democrats away from me," he said.
"She's tough as nails," Murtha said of Pelosi. "This woman understands politics. She understood what needed to be done to move toward the majority."
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., a social conservative, said he'd prefer to see Murtha as speaker than Pelosi, but that he can support Pelosi.
When Taylor pushed for more tax dollars to support health care for military retirees and national guardsmen, he said, "Nancy Pelosi was helping me, and Dennis Hastert was blocking me."
"They've had the House, the Senate, the presidency, all those appointees and the Supreme Court, and they've increased the national debt on their watch by $3 trillion," he said of Republicans. "They talk about Nancy being pro-choice, and I regret that she is, but you know what? There's no law that says you can have an abortion. It's a Supreme Court ruling. It's a Republican-appointed Supreme Court."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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