WASHINGTON - Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who has deep political roots in her native Baltimore, is poised to be elected House minority leader next week and to make history as the first woman in Congress to secure the top party post.
Pelosi, the No. 2 Democrat as party whip, has enough support from the rank and file after the withdrawal of her most formidable opponent to win a vote for the post slated for Thursday. She would then join Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota as the public face of the Democratic Party.
Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, conceded defeat yesterday in the race to succeed Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who announced Thursday that he would relinquish his post in January.
Frost endorsed Pelosi - daughter of former Baltimore Mayor and Rep. Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. and sister of former Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III - one day after announcing his candidacy.
News of his retreat came as another competitor, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, 32 - a prominent African-American who is the child of a former House member of the same name - was announcing his upstart bid for minority leader.
"I've offered my candidacy because, frankly, it's the only true change that's in this race," Ford said.
But Pelosi, the front-runner even before Frost's concession, said she had secured the support of the majority of House Democrats. She met Ford's candidacy with a chilly reception, telling reporters, "I'm not concerned. ... Anyone who wants to come in, the water's warm.
"The race is over," Pelosi added.
Frost's withdrawal from the contest appeared to cut short what many saw as a battle for the soul of a bruised and divided Democratic Party - a contest that would decide the direction congressional Democrats take over the next two years.
Next week a test
In the aftermath of electoral losses that were far worse than their strategists expected, House Democrats are struggling to regroup, figure out what went wrong and move to prevent a repeat of the failures that have sentenced their party to a fifth consecutive Congress in the minority.
Many saw next week's leadership elections as their first test, and Frost presented his candidacy that way.
Frost, 60, said rank-and-file Democrats had to choose between moving sharply to the left in the 108th Congress, where he said Pelosi would take them, or occupying the center, where he said his party must position itself if it hopes to take back the House.
On Tuesday, the country "moved somewhat to the right," Frost said Thursday. "Our party must occupy the center if we are to be successful, if we're to come back in the majority and not move father to the left."
Pelosi, a popular and charismatic 62-year-old lawmaker representing most of liberal San Francisco, has said Democrats lost at the polls last week because they did not present clear enough distinctions between their policies and those advocated by the Republicans.
A fierce partisan who is among the most liberal members in the House Democratic Caucus, Pelosi nonetheless said she would act as a consensus-builder within the increasingly polyglot ranks of her party,
But she said Democrats must present a bold message opposing Republicans on a variety of issues, most important the economy.
"Where we do not have common ground, we must stand our ground," Pelosi said. Now that Republicans control not only the White House but also both houses of Congress, they "have to perform, or answer for not performing, and we have to point out where the public interest is not served," Pelosi said.
Pelosi's ascension opens the way for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland to become the Democratic whip. He had lost a race for the post against Pelosi last year.
Challenge by Ford
Latecomer Ford, a member of the conservative Blue Dog faction who announced his candidacy yesterday on Don Imus' morning radio program, presented himself as the anti-establishment candidate and a voice for change in the Democratic Party.
"I just believe that she would offer the same kind of leadership that we've been used to, the same old ways of the past," Ford said of Pelosi.
Democrats failed at the polls because they did not offer voters a concrete alternative to Republicans, Ford said. "The American people want answers. ... I think we were rejected in some ways because we didn't offer a course in which we would take the nation."
Ford is one of a number of moderate and conservative Democrats who are uneasy about the direction their party will take after the losses on Election Day. These lawmakers fear that their party will veer left in attempts to fortify its base rather than putting together a message that can appeal to a broader set of voters in 2004.
"The left is really of the opinion after this election that we lost because we didn't take Bush on - they really do want us to go after the president," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, a co-chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition.