Rolling With Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi walks out of an airport the way others might flee a burning building. A car is waiting outside and the California congresswoman, straining under the weight of a suitcase, a fold-over bag and a pile of newspapers, cannot reach it quickly enough. Behind her, two young aides are having a hard time keeping up with their 66-year-old boss--if only because both of them are attempting to navigate their way through the concourse while furiously typing into their BlackBerrys at the same time.

There are only a few weeks left before the midterm elections, and for Pelosi, the few minutes it takes to walk from the gate to the exit are wasted time. Time that could be spent memorizing the names and faces of the 200 people she's about to meet, or squeezing donors for last-minute contributions that will enable Pelosi to reach her ultimate goal: winning the 15 seats Democrats need to take control of the House. If they do, Pelosi, the House minority leader since 2002, will rise to Speaker of the House. She'll be the first Democrat to hold the job in 12 years. And the first woman, ever.

The chances look pretty good. Current polls show Democrats could win 25 or more House seats. But Pelosi's strategy seems to be to campaign as if she doesn't believe it. Her own district in bluest of blue San Francisco is safe, so she spends most of her time on the road scrounging votes--and cash--for others. In a typical week she touches down in five cities in four days, a blur of restaurant fund-raisers and quieter, one-on-one appeals.

This October afternoon it's Portland, Ore. Inside the car at last, Pelosi starts making up for lost time. An aide has already dialed a cell phone and hands it over to the boss, telling her who's waiting at the other end of the line. Pelosi congratulates the Pennsylvania candidate Patrick Murphy for being selected to give the Democrats' response to the president's Saturday radio address. A few pleasantries later, she hangs up and the other aide immediately hands her a different phone. Another congressman wants to review the guest list for his fund-raiser. She hangs up and the aide passes Pelosi another phone. The congresswoman grows irritated when the aide fumbles to explain what the call is about. "First who ," she instructs, "then what ."

This telephonic ballet continues as she rolls from a fund-raiser to a senior center, where Pelosi takes the stage and transitions into her standard speech, a collection of one-liners, slogans and personal homilies so tested and timed and rehearsed that they shield her like armor. "You must drain the swamp if you are going to govern for the people," she says, wagging a finger. The Republicans "have forgotten who they work for. [Democrats] haven't had a bill on the floor for 12 years. We're not here to whine about it; we will do it better. I intend to be very fair. I do not intend to give away the gavel." Pelosi, who is married to a real-estate investor and has five kids, always tries to ground her politics in the personal, reminding her audience of her domestic roots. At one point, chattering from the crowd grows a little too loud. She leans in to the microphone. "Am I going to have to use my 'Mother of Five Voice' to be heard?"

The line works. The audience laughs. She knew they would, because they did the last time she used it. And the time before that. If Pelosi has stolen anything from the Republicans, it is a total devotion to the discipline of message control. The Democrats may be forever doomed to squabble over what to do about Iraq and immigration and gay marriage, but Pelosi is unfailingly consistent. A recent addition to her arsenal of barbs scolds Republican leaders for failing to stop former congressman Mark Foley's lurid messages to teenage pages. "As a mother and grandmother, I think 'lioness'," she says. "You come near the cubs, you're dead."

It is Pelosi's discipline--at keeping Democrats united against the GOP, and especially in raising millions of dollars for her colleagues' campaigns--that has paved her way to power, even if it is, at the moment, minority power. And in an age when politicians can't seem to get enough camera time, Pelosi is a bit more selective. She makes the rounds of the Sunday-morning shows, and even went on "Letterman." But she isn't a regular face on cable TV, where aggressive hosts would try to prod her off message and viewers would have time to take her measure and form strong (possibly negative) opinions about her. "Two thirds of the public have absolutely no idea who I am," Pelosi tells NEWSWEEK. "I see that as a strength. This isn't about me. It's about Democrats."

Pelosi's relative anonymity has made it difficult for Republican candidates, who have attempted, and so far largely failed, to make her into a scary national symbol of the left. It's hard to spook people with a face no one recognizes. Of course, that hasn't stopped them from trying. Some of the ads are unintentionally funny. In North Carolina, GOP Rep. Charles Taylor is in a tough re-election fight against former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler. In the past, Taylor has won by portraying his Democratic opponents as weak-kneed liberals. But Shuler is so conservative that the Republicans once tried to recruit him as a candidate. The Heisman Trophy runner-up is anti-abortion, anti-immigration and pro-gun. He even supports the war in Iraq. You wouldn't know it watching Taylor's TV ads, which accuse Shuler of "following the playbook of San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi." With the sound of a football crowd in the background, the narrator sums it up: "The Pelosi game plan: elect Heath Shuler and others like him and take over Congress with the votes of illegal immigrants." Recently, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have taken to mentioning Pelosi by name in campaign speeches. (A few Democrats, too, have found it useful to keep their distance. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., running for Senate in conservative Tennessee, makes sure to let people know that he challenged Pelosi for minority leader.)

The critics have a point: she is unabashedly liberal. Pelosi leads opposition to the Iraq war on the House floor. She's pushed hard to roll back Bush's tax cuts. She is an ardent defender of abortion rights--differing with members of her conservative Roman Catholic family over the subject. She's had no compunction about playing hardball politics--going after troubled GOP counterpart Tom DeLay with a ferocity reminiscent of DeLay himself. "We will not be Swift Boated again," Pelosi says. "Not on national security or anything else." The Republicans "are not constrained by money, truth or any sense of decency in what they will say about anybody and what they will charge, and you have to slam them right back."

Pelosi clearly likes this part of the game: the pushing back. She comes by it naturally. She has learned her way around Washington in her two decades in the House, but her real political education began in her own house when she was a young girl. Pelosi's father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was the mayor of Baltimore--her oldest brother, Thomas, would also go on to become mayor--and the family's Little Italy row house was open to visitors. Day and night, men and women came to the mayor asking for help. On the table in the front room was the "favor file," a handwritten ledger in which her father kept track of the things he did for people. Young Nancy practiced her penmanship by logging entries in the book.

The youngest child and only daughter after five sons, she learned how to get around--and get her way--in a man's world. Those early experiences became the basis for her dealings on clubby Capitol Hill, a male-dominated culture if ever there was one. She came to Congress later in life. She was first elected at 47, after years as a mother and Democratic Party official and fund-raiser in California. In Washington, Pelosi has run her political life much in the way her father ran his. The favor bank is central to the way she does business. "These new guys think you just take out and take out," says Rep. Jim McDermott, a friend. "She understands you put in, you put in, you put in, and then, at some point, you say, 'I need a favor'." Pelosi doesn't use a DeLay-style "hammer" to keep her party in line. "She won't say, 'Vote this way'," McDermott says. "She's very realistic. She'll say, 'You are free to do what you want.' But you can be sure she'll remember if you don't do the right thing."

When that happens, colleagues say, Pelosi can be icy. When a member tells her, " 'I'm sorry, I can't be with you','' says California Rep. Anna Eshoo, the leader will sometimes reply, " 'We can't be with you, either'." Pelosi, already preparing for the possible takeover, hands out printed cards listing all the things she wants to accomplish in her first 100 hours as Speaker--passing a minimum-wage hike, enacting the 9/11 Commission's recommendations and passing a bill to promote stem-cell research. If she does get the gavel, Pelosi knows some of the things on her list may not go over very easily with her more conservative Democratic colleagues. That's when, after socking away favors for 20 years, she will dip into the bank, crowded with I.O.U.s, and make a few long-awaited withdrawals. Whether that capital can fund a successful liberal comeback will then be the central question before the House--and the country.