NEW YORK – After the withdrawal of her primary opponent from the race to become the head Democrat in the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi all but declared victory Friday.
"This race is over," Pelosi said at a news conference in her hometown of San Francisco.
But Rep. Harold Ford Jr. reacted to that statement later Friday night, saying not so fast.
"This race is far from over," the 32-year-old Democrat said in a statement. Ford announced his own candidacy for House minority leader on Thursday.
"I have spent today talking to dozens of my colleagues in the House, and I am extremely encouraged by the support I have received for my candidacy for Democratic leader," Ford said. "I am in this race to win, and I am confident that momentum is building."
Earlier Friday, Pelosi attacked Republicans and said her first task would be to forge a common Democratic position on "growing the economy.''
"We have to point out where the public interest is not served'' by the GOP majority, Pelosi said. "Our big difference with the Republicans is they are the party of special interests. We have to make that clear to the American people."
Earlier in the day, Rep. Martin Frost dropped out of the campaign to become the next House minority leader, throwing his support behind his short-lived competitor.
Frost quit the race just one day after announcing his candidacy for the No. 2 House position.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt announced on Wednesday that he would step down from his long-held post, leading Frost, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Pelosi of California to compete for the position.
The party leadership position is particularly important right now, as Dems seek to regroup after major losses in the midterm election.
Frost had argued Pelosi was too liberal and that, if chosen for the minority leader position, would bring the party too far to the left, which would not help the Democrats in the 2004 elections.
But in a letter to his colleagues Friday, Frost threw his support behind Pelosi, saying, "it is clear" that she has the votes of the majority of the Democratic Caucus to get elected.
"Nancy Pelosi is a talented and capable party leader," Frost wrote. "I intend to support her for Democratic leader in next week's election, and I will work with her to do everything I can to return Democrats to control of the House of Representatives."
But Frost, more of a centrist Democrat, noted in the letter that he will continue to be "an outspoken advocate for the mainstream, centrist view that will lead us to the majority."
The leadership election is scheduled for next Thursday and despite Frost's departure from the secret ballot, Pelosi still has some late breaking competition.
Ford, from Al Gore's home state of Tennessee, said earlier Friday that he thinks Pelosi and Frost represent a leadership style that the party needs to change and said he may be the man to change it.
"I recognize that I am an underdog because I'm starting out late," he said, adding, "there's a real yearning and a real appetite for change in the party."
Before Frost's Friday announcement, party rank and file were facing a decision between candidates who have far differing political perspectives. The philosophical contrast demonstrates the pickle Democrats are in trying to find a party platform that resonates with voters.
Pelosi is a well-known liberal from San Francisco and would be expected to bring Democrats further away from the political center if chosen to succeed Gephardt.
She formally announced her bid Thursday afternoon, saying that Democrats must move further left and shape themselves into a more cohesive group that is distinctly different from the GOP.
"We must draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and the extreme policies put forward by the Republicans. We cannot allow Republicans to pretend they share our values and then legislate against those values without consequence," she said in a written statement. "I am convinced that the American people share our values and our hopes for the country."
Frost then said he thought Pelosi would lead the party in the wrong direction.
"There are an awful lot of Democrats who are very uneasy about the party moving sharply to the left and who want a party that's in the middle that speaks strongly and confronts the Republicans," Frost said Thursday. "I think that her politics are to the left, and I think that the party, to be successful, must speak to the broad center of the country.
"I believe our party must occupy the center if we are to be successful, if we are to come back in the majority and not move farther to the left. It's a clear choice," he added.
Democrats can't win if they try to take on President Bush and the GOP on issues such as foreign policy and Iraq, Frost argued. He said voters, particularly those who may have been undecided on Election Day, obviously sided with Bush's stance on the war on terror when it came time to go to the polls.
"The president successfully won, I believe, by standing for a strong America. The country is with the president on that issue," said Frost, who voted in favor of a congressional resolution authorizing the United States to use military force against Iraq if Saddam Hussein doesn't comply with demands for disarmament.
Ford was elected this week to his fourth term. He succeeded his father, Harold Ford Sr., in representing the Memphis area. Last year, the younger Ford was named one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" by People magazine. He serves on the House Education and Workforce and Government Reform committees and was keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
Ford, who would become the highest-ranking black representative, said the party must tighten its message to win back voters. "The American people were sending us a message on' Election Day," said Ford. "Our message has not been coherent and cogent enough.''
Pelosi, the highest-ranking female in Congress, was chosen by the party caucus over Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland for the minority whip position, succeeding Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, who quit to run for governor of Michigan.
She has kept a high profile since by being the ranking House Democrat of the joint intelligence panel tasked with reviewing pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures. She also crafted an alternative to House Majority Leader Dick Armey's homeland security bill.
Pelosi already has assembled a list of at least 110 backers. In the new Congress, leadership will be decided by the 205 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with them.
Newsday columnist Jim Pinkerton said he believes the consensus is that Pelosi has the upper hand, but that Bush's success or failure in Iraq -- and the Democrats' approach to a war -- will also affect the 2004 outcome.
"The situation is a lot like what Democrats went through in 1968 to '72" during Nixon's first term, Pinkerton said. Democrats were very divided over that war. Those who opposed the war took over the party and ran then-South Dakota Sen. George McGovern for president in 1972. McGovern lost in a landslide.
"I think the same dynamic is happening now," Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor, said. "It's sort of a gamble [for Democrats] - the big issue in 2004 is going to be the Iraq war."
Brookings Institution senior fellow E.J. Dionne said the key to success for whoever succeeds Gephardt will be an ability to find issues that will unite both liberal and moderate Democrats.
"I think there are a lot of issues where the requirement for Democrats is to bring those two sides together, because that's how you form a majority," Dionne said. "What troubles me about the way the Pelosi-Frost debate is going, to just go down this very old, tired ideological road that doesn't get the Democrats anywhere."
Dionne said that if the two sides of the party "don't fly together, the bird crashes into a tree."
For its part, the White House has said that the president can work with anyone Democrats choose to fill Gephardt's position.
If Pelosi does make the move up, Hoyer, who was considered more moderate than Pelosi in the earlier whip election, is almost certain to move into the minority whip's post, a Hoyer aide said, having secured commitments from 168 members of the incoming Democratic caucus.