WASHINGTON - A bitter competition between two prominent politicians with deep Maryland roots is headed toward a climax this fall that could propel one to the top ranks of national leadership.
For more than 2 1/2 years, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, of Southern Maryland, and Rep. Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi, of San Francisco by way of Baltimore, have been jockeying for position in a race for the post of Democratic whip, the No. 2 position in the party's House leadership.
Their Democratic colleagues will finally be asked to make a choice between them within the next several months if the current whip, David E. Bonior, steps aside, as expected, to concentrate on a bid for Michigan governor.
The winner of the contest could easily move up to majority leader, perhaps even speaker of the House one day, if the Democrats regain control of the chamber next year, as they desperately hope to do after four losing elections.
"This is an important moment for our party," said Texas Democratic Rep. Max Sandlin, a Pelosi backer. "We're on the verge of launching it in a new direction."
For Marylanders, the whip race is akin to sibling rivalry.
Hoyer, 62, has been a Maryland political leader since his student government days at the University of Maryland, College Park. In the 1970s, he and his pal Peter F. O'Malley created in Prince George's County the state's last genuine political machine, which propelled Hoyer into the presidency of the state Senate at age 35 and later into the first of 11 terms in the House.
Pelosi, 61, was born into one of Baltimore's leading political families. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., known as Tommy the Elder, represented the city in Congress for more than a decade, then served three terms as mayor.
Her brother, Thomas D'Alesandro III, or Tommy the Younger, served as the city's mayor as well. She moved to California after marrying Paul Pelosi in 1963 and became involved in Democratic politics, eventually becoming state party chairwoman.
When Pelosi arrived in Congress in 1987 as a freshman representative from San Francisco, she was embraced as the unofficial "ninth" member of the Maryland delegation.
"We're very proud of both of them," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who is managing Hoyer's whip campaign. "Nancy's a Californian now, but we claim credit for all of her political training."
The chief job of a party whip is to count votes, making sure that leadership-backed legislation has enough support to pass. Beyond that, the post is defined largely by the lawmaker who holds it.
Pelosi, the more liberal of the two hopefuls, is running as the candidate of diversity, saying she wants to broaden leadership opportunities for all segments of the party.
Backed by the huge California delegation as well as most of the 44 Democratic women in the House, she has stirred national interest about the possibility that she may reach the highest perch ever attained by a woman in either party.
"Think of the picture, literally, after the leadership elections," said Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat. "For the party that depends on women for most of our votes, I think putting a woman in one of the top two leadership jobs - or the failure to - that sends a message."
Hoyer is running more toward the center. His backers say he is the candidate best suited by style and temperament to reach across the aisle and find common ground with Republicans, who are destined to remain a powerful force in the House even if they lose the majority by a few seats.
Hoyer has more support than Pelosi among moderates, but he also has backing across the ideological spectrum from colleagues who see him as a team player and appreciate his efforts to improve the quality of their lives, such as working to end the scarring political battles over congressional pay raises that occurred regularly a decade ago.
"He is a member's member," said Georgia Democrat John Lewis, a veteran of the Congressional Black Caucus, who dropped his bid for whip last year and threw his support to Hoyer.
Hoyer and Pelosi have been friends since the early 1960s when both had summer jobs working for then Maryland Democratic Sen. Daniel Brewster. But their long relationship and many ties have made their high-stakes competition even more trying for them and their colleagues than such contests normally are.
"It's like having to choose between your best friends or your children: It's very difficult, they're both good people," said Rep. Marion Berry, an Arkansas Democrat.
So awkward is the competition that Berry, who has endorsed Pelosi, would not say why, for fear of offending Hoyer.
"I just felt like I needed to get it off my plate and move on," said Berry. "It was taking too much of my time. As long as I was undecided, five to 15 people a day would want to talk to me about it."