Whipping up a Fight

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Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi oversees a meeting in her office on Capitol Hill

When the Republican congressmen meeting in a basement conference room at the Capitol last October got word that Democrats had just elected Nancy Pelosi as minority whip, they broke into applause. They weren't cheering because the California Representative had made history by becoming the first woman to win a top leadership post in the House. Many of the Republicans, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, considered the San Francisco Congresswoman a lightweight whose liberal voting record would help them paint the Democrats as out of synch with moderate voters.

One key Republican who did not join in the cheers that morning was Tom DeLay, who for almost eight years has been majority whip, the House G.O.P.'s top enforcer and vote counter. The conservative Texan knew his new adversary was a mediagenic and relentless political organizer, a firebrand who could invigorate her party's liberal base just as he does the Republican right. "She's a worthy opponent," says DeLay. "I've always sort of liked her. But, obviously, I want to beat her at every turn."

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This year Pelosi and DeLay will be battling each other not just on the House floor but also across the country, as they spearhead their parties' respective campaigns for control of the House. It promises to be a bruising fight. The Democrats need to pick up only six seats to take back the House, and history is on their side: the party of the President--even a popular one like George W. Bush--typically loses House seats during a midterm election. Bush's high poll numbers have so far created "no coattail effect," admits Virginia Representative Tom Davis, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee. Democrats are looking to draw blood on domestic issues, where they think Bush is vulnerable. Last week, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt pounced on a White House proposal to raise interest rates that college students pay for federal loans (Bush quickly backed away from the idea), while Pelosi called Bush's education budget "$4.2 billion short of the promise of leaving no child behind."

But the rebounding economy and a lack of other rallying issues could help the Republicans. The Democrats "don't have a whole lot of running room this time," says California Representative Ellen Tauscher, the national vice chair of the Democratic Leadership Council. Congressional redistricting, which is mandated every decade in accordance with the new Census count, is still under way, but so far the redrawn lines appear to favor most House incumbents. No more than two dozen of the 435 House races may really be up for grabs, and many of them are in Republican-friendly areas in the South and Midwest. DeLay predicts the G.O.P. will defy history and actually increase its majority in November.

Pelosi is working hard to prevent that prediction from coming true. During a House Democratic retreat in Pennsylvania in January, she brought in her team of California consultants to lecture party bosses on how to win back the chamber. Organize better at the grass roots, they said, and stop wasting dollars on congressional districts where the Democrat has no chance of winning. "I have a reptilian approach," she says. "You have to be very cold-blooded in how you allocate resources." So the party is bypassing races in Ohio and Michigan, where redistricting has given Republicans the edge, and targeting millions of dollars on races against vulnerable G.O.P. incumbents in such states as Connecticut and Iowa. Last week the House Democrats launched a fundraising program that Pelosi has been pushing. Patterned after a similar program that DeLay began for his party in 2000, it will seek to get Democratic Representatives in safe districts to donate money from their campaigns or political-action committees to Democrats in tougher races.

A stylish grandmother of five who wears Armani suits and a permanent moonbeam smile, Pelosi, 62, grew up in Baltimore, Md., where both her father and brother served as mayor. She moved to California in 1969 with her husband, a San Francisco investment banker, and toiled as a party activist and fundraiser before running for Congress in 1987. Her signature issues--human rights, aids funding, environmental protection--put her as far as any Representative from DeLay, a pro-business Christian conservative from Sugar Land, Texas, whose nickname is "the Hammer" because of his take-no-prisoners approach to politics.

And yet the two have been friendly for years. DeLay once shocked Pelosi when he accepted an invitation to tour aids-treatment facilities with her in San Francisco. And she was touched when he slipped into her Feb. 6 swearing-in ceremony as whip to pay his respects. They may recognize in each other kindred political instincts. Pelosi ran a three-year insurgency to snare the whip's job from the initial favorite, Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, by raising millions of campaign dollars in California and funneling them to grateful members of Congress. DeLay did the same to win his post in 1994.

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