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Los Angeles Times: Pelosi: speaker, listener, conciliator and battler

By Faye Fiore

Nancy Pelosi knew Earl Blumenauer would be a hard case, but she left two messages on his cellphone anyway.

A liberal, bow-tied, bicycle-riding peacenik from Oregon, Blumenauer had voted against the Iraq war and every dollar since to pay for it. He was not about to embrace a bill that threw $100 billion more into the fighting, even if it would force the president to bring the troops home.

'I've been trying to get ahold of you,' the House speaker said when she caught up with the Portland Democrat in the Capitol's basement. They sat down. She said she empathized with his dilemma -- she too had opposed the war from the start and wanted it ended fast. But in her mind the choice was simple: Hand President Bush a victory or hand him a rebuke.

'She convinced me,' said Blumenauer, whose vote helped give Pelosi her most important legislative victory. 'For me, there was no attempt at pressure. I was able to convey my concerns. She was there. She was listening.'

Pelosi's performance on the war spending bill highlighted what has become her signature: an aggressive leadership style that seeks to put Congress on par with the White House and prove that her notoriously fractious party can indeed govern.

Her style has surprised some in the caucus. Liberals who expected camaraderie say she's a poor listener, and conservatives who expected a cold shoulder say listening is one of her better skills.

Some Democrats worried she would run the House as a San Francisco liberal with a 'left coast' agenda and as a machine politician with a long memory for slights. But so far, Pelosi, who reached her first 100 days as speaker on Friday, has defied those expectations. She has embraced a centrist agenda and built relationships with rivals.

'She has elevated her game, which is exactly what you have to do,' said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, a leader of the moderate New Democrats. 'She is a lot better leader as speaker than she ever has been.'

Pelosi's forceful approach carries risks. Her recent trip to Syria, where she boasted of carrying a message from the Israeli prime minister, drew surprised Israelis' immediate clarifications, as well as swipes from the White House, which said she was meddling dangerously in foreign policy. Images of Pelosi in a head scarf appeared on television as critics derided her for kowtowing to a dictator.

But her attempts to open a Middle East dialogue also underscored Pelosi's ambition -- to be the public face of a resurgent party out to show voters it can be trusted to run the country.

In the opening days of the House session, when the nation was paying close attention, Pelosi pushed through six popular bills while shutting down GOP demands for debate. The exercise made Democrats appear unified and ready for business.

'Pelosi is engaged in what I call new machine-style politics,' Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), an outspoken critic, wrote in an e-mail. 'She centralizes power in the speaker's office and deploys a divide-and-conquer strategy even within her own party. When her poll numbers are high, all is well. When her poll numbers drop, watch out.'

As the highest-ranking woman in elective office, Pelosi is as much a power player as the men who preceded her.

'She's well-bred, a lady through and through,' said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton), Pelosi's friend of 30 years. 'But anyone who knows her knows not to mess with her.'

With a father who was a Baltimore mayor and congressman who ran a political machine out of the family's brick row house, Pelosi cultivates loyalty in ways large and small, much as her father did -- keeping careful political tallies, but still remembering birthdays.

She opens her office doors to the factions of her ideologically splintered caucus, instructing staffers to stock the refrigerator and 'always offer guests.'

'I would not be bashful about being critical, but I think she has tremendous respect to date,' said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater), a three-term moderate whose candidacy Pelosi did not initially endorse. 'She still represents a district from San Francisco. But she is conducting herself in a way of doing everything within her power to build unity.'

Polls suggest Pelosi is winning over the public as well. Before the midterm election, more Americans disapproved of her than not. Now it's the other way around. She has leveraged her novelty as the first woman speaker to become the most recognizable Democrat outside of the presidential field.

Now Pelosi signs autographs -- her aides carry Sharpies. A recent appearance at ArizonaStateUniversity, in a strategically important red state, was set up for 300 but drew four times as many. And her schedulers are more careful about unplanned public appearances since the day she was unexpectedly trapped by reporters and tourists in a corner of the Capitol.

Displaying a knack for political stagecraft (recall the image of the newly installed speaker surrounded by children), she grants few substantive interviews but posed for photographer Annie Leibovitz in Vogue. Ms. Magazine put her on the cover. On a single day last month, she had her picture taken with Tiger Woods, Bill Gates and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

In less carefully choreographed circumstances, Pelosi sometimes trips. A recent televised news conference on Iraq dissolved into an awkward square dance as she traded places with three committee chairmen standing behind her to fill in details she couldn't recall. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart lampooned their confusion, an unfortunate irony since the purpose of the event was to announce that the party finally had a war plan.

In many ways, Pelosi's leadership style seems inspired by her former life as a stay-at-home mother of five. She governs the unwieldy chamber much the way she did her Presidio Terrace household, refusing to reward tantrums, reining in know-it-alls, assigning chores and mollifying complainers.

When Pelosi shoved aside fellow Democrat Jane Harman of Venice, in line to head the prestigious intelligence committee, there was a brief squabble at a Georgetown beauty parlor. Pelosi prevailed. (Tantrum unrewarded.)

One of her first acts as speaker was to let stand the GOP-imposed term limits on committee chairs, rankling some old bulls. 'It was not a discussion, it was an announcement,' one senior Democratic staffer recalled. (Know-it-alls restrained.)

She moved to elevate the issue of global warming by forming a select committee to function independently of at least eight panels already at work on legislation, irking the chairs again. (Chores assigned.)

Pelosi compromised, agreeing to disband the committee after a year to appease a furious John D. Dingell of Michigan, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Asked if Dingell had hard feelings, an aide said, 'He's OK with it. On a personal level, he adores her.' (Complainers mollified.)

There have been, however, some questionable decisions.

In the contest over who would succeed her as House Democratic leader, Pelosi split the caucus -- needlessly, in the view of some Democrats -- when she unsuccessfully tried to defeat an old rival, the popular Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

She was blindsided by a flap over her request for a larger military jet to fly around the country, a perk that comes with being second-in-line to the presidency. Conservatives made headlines calling her a diva.

And the early rush to pass a flurry of bills -- including calls for a higher minimum wage, lower tuition costs and expanded care for veterans -- set a pace Democrats cannot possibly sustain.

Pelosi's speakership has been defined largely by her challenge to the president's war strategy. But the stakes are high for Pelosi and her party, which is considered vulnerable on national defense.

Democrats could find themselves tarred as meddlesome if Bush convinces Americans that the party is endangering the troops. And if Bush's troop increase makes Baghdad significantly safer, Democrats could be seen as weak.

For the moment, though, Pelosi -- the GOP's No. 1 congressional target -- has frustrated Republicans' hope that she would lead her party astray.

'On the conservative side of the aisle, we hoped she would have done stuff that would have made it easier to demonize her very quickly,' said GOP strategist Tony Fabrizio. 'But they seem to be watching their step, at least for the time being, and not acting as precipitously as everybody thought.'