Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House, portrays herself as a polite, grandmotherly lady. She constantly discusses her five grandchildren, makes sure her office is stocked with Ghirardelli chocolates, perpetually smiles and never swears in a business in which almost everyone else does. She even has a few cute quirks she and her staff would love to tell you about: a diet consisting mostly of chocolate and chocolate ice cream, and so much energy, she rarely sleeps. Just the other night, she will tell you, she was up watching MTV after midnight.
Don't believe it for a second. Would your grandmother ever say, "If people are ripping your face off, you have to rip their face off" (Pelosi's approach to handling attacks from Republicans)? How about "If you take the knife off the table, it's not very frightening anymore" (her explanation for why she won't let voters forget George W. Bush's unpopular Social Security proposal from last year)?
The 66-year-old San Francisco lawmaker is an aggressive, hyperpartisan liberal pol who is the Democrats' version of Tom DeLay, minus the ethical and legal problems of the former Republican House leader. To condition Democrats for this fall's midterm elections, she has employed tactics straight out of DeLay's playbook: insisting other House Democrats vote the party line on everything, avoiding compromise with Republicans at all cost and mandating that members spend much of their time raising money for colleagues in close races. And she has been effective. House Democrats have been more unified in their voting than at any other time in the past quarter-century, with members on average voting the party line 88% of the time in 2005, according to Congressional Quarterly. That cohesion enabled Democrats to hasten President Bush's slide in the polls when they blocked his plan to reform Social Security by allowing retirees to eschew guaranteed benefits in favor of private accounts. Bush's approval rating remains depressed--38% in a TIME poll last week--and the Democrats are in their best position to win the House since Republicans took control of it in 1994.
If Democrats are successful in November, it will be mostly the result of Americans' increasing frustration with the Iraq war and with the perception that Bush and congressional Republicans have bungled everything from Terri Schiavo to Hurricane Katrina. But Pelosi has made sure Democrats didn't break the Republicans' fall. And if Democrats win back the 15 seats they need to form a majority, Pelosi will be richly rewarded. She would almost certainly become the first woman to be House Speaker.
That would be sweet vindication for a leader many moderate Democrats castigated as an out-of-touch liberal who would take the party perilously to the left when she became the top House Democrat in 2002. It would also mark a rapid rise for a politician who didn't run for office until she was 47. Pelosi grew up in a prominent political family in Baltimore, Md. Her father was the mayor for almost her entire childhood. After college, Pelosi and her husband Paul moved to New York City and then to San Francisco, where she became a leading Democratic fund raiser, then chairwoman of the party in California. But she waited until the youngest of her five children was a high school senior before she ran for Congress in 1987.