Inside Pelosi's Power Play

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Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa.

For a moment there it looked as if incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was making the mistake every pragmatic Democrat feared: putting soft-hearted personal allegiance ahead of cold-eyed political calculation. The first key decision she made since the Democrats' triumph in last week's elections was to back John Murtha, the anti-war hero of the left, in what seemed an impossible battle against Maryland moderate, Steny Hoyer, for the number two position in the House Democratic leadership, majority leader. And it wasn't looking good.

"I think she made a mistake," Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, the incoming head of the powerful Financial Services Committee and a Hoyer supporter, said Tuesday. "I wish it would not have happened." Pelosi loyalists worried that backing a loser early on would hurt her authority down the road, and project an image of a divided party.

Sensing the need for some spin control, Pelosi's aides spent the better part of the last few days trying to play down the significance of her support for Murtha. Other Democrats said she wasn't really backing him, just giving a token nod to an old friend and mentor who had helped her rise to her current lofty position.

But it turns out Pelosi is deadly serious — which means a Murtha loss is anything but inevitable. One source close to the Murtha effort claims Pelosi has made 40 calls to incoming freshman and wavering centrists in the party on Murtha's behalf. Pelosi's spokesman Brendan Daly said she has "made it clear to members of her support for Mr. Murtha." Two top Pelosi lieutenants, George Miller and Anna Eshoo, both of California, said Pelosi was in the fight all the way. "When she says support, it's not just an endorsement, it is full-fledged," Eshoo said.

And that will make a real difference. One senior Democratic House member who was leaning toward Hoyer told TIME her vote was entirely dependent on the seriousness of Pelosi's interest in the race. Told that Pelosi was calling around in support of Murtha, the member said her vote was Pelosi's to claim: "The Speaker usually gets what the Speaker wants." Magnified across scores of calls, that kind of attitude could spell trouble for Hoyer. His backers are not happy and claim it will only firm up his support. "Members don't appreciate the strong-arm tactics and are angry that this is happening. That is one more reason they are sticking with Hoyer," says one senior Dem aide.

Pelosi's lieutenants appear confident. Rather than hedging their bets, they're now speaking strongly in support of Murtha's candidacy. They say it is his position on Iraq and his outspoken criticism of the administration's handling of the war that makes him the right person to have in the number two leadership spot.

"This is as serious and as deadly as it gets, this issue," of Iraq, says Eshoo. She and Miller argue that Murtha is a strong face for the Democrats in the country. "This man has the credibility," says Miller. "He gave the Democrats a place to stand on Iraq." That, he says, is "very essential" to Pelosi.

Of course, the move remains a gamble by Pelosi. If Murtha wins, she will have made a powerful statement, in the face of strong opposition by committee chairmen, about who is running the show. "She doesn't want a dissonant voice" in her leadership, says Jim Moran of Virginia, a top Murtha backer.

But Murtha is a controversial character, thanks to his ties to the 1980s Abscam affair (he was investigated but never charged) and more recently his lavish earmarking as a member of the appropriations committee. A full-blown ethics scandal would be a disaster for the Democrats as they enter their moment in the sun. And if Murtha loses, it's doubly bad for Pelosi. Not only would she have picked sides and lost, but she will have gone down fighting. Miller, for one, seems unfazed. "It's looking pretty good for Jack."