Nancy Pelosi was 47 before she won her first election, but she was hardly new to politics. Her father was a New Deal congressman from Maryland and later the mayor of Baltimore. Her brother also served as Baltimore's mayor.
Now, at 62, she says she has the support to take over next week as the Democratic leader in the House, the first woman to lead a party in Congress.
She has always proudly called herself a Democrat in the New Deal tradition and she made her reputation in the House as an outspoken critic of China's human rights record and as a supporter of increasing federal support to combat AIDS.
Pelosi was able to overcome criticism that she is too liberal to be her party's leader in the House, even though her campaign travels this year on behalf of Democratic candidates suggested that could be a problem.
Democratic candidates in several swing districts, including two she visited in New Hampshire, were grateful to have Pelosi in town to raise money, but leery of appearing with her in public.
She said Friday, when asked about political labels, "When people describe me as liberal I always say, 'Well, I guess you could describe an Italian-American grandmother that way.'
"But I think you have to see me in my other perspective, which is someone within politics as an extension of my work as my role as a mother and a grandmother, and it's imperative that I have to make the future better for the next generation."
As Democratic whip, the party's No. 2 House post she has held since February, she was a leading supporter of campaign finance reform. But she also has shown a knack for gathering campaign contributions, helping as long ago as the early 1980s with the effort to attract the 1984 Democratic National Convention to San Francisco.
She had moved to San Francisco with her businessman husband, Paul, and they have raised five children. Before running for Congress she was head of the California Democratic Party.
As Pelosi traveled the country on behalf of Democrats before this year's election, she quietly made clear she was ready to move up as soon as Richard Gephardt announced he was stepping down as minority leader.
True to political etiquette, she didn't claim she had locked up the job, but her message to would-be rivals was clear. "I've not asked one person for a vote, but people have volunteered them to me, people who have not been with me in the past," she said in an interview in New Hampshire two weeks before the election.