Rep. Nancy Pelosi will try to unify House Democrats with an inclusive style and a willingness to confront Republicans on the issues, her supporters say.

Pelosi, 62, a Democrat from San Francisco, is on the brink of becoming the first woman to serve as a leader of either party in the House or Senate.

She is expected to move up from Democratic whip, the No. 2 job, to minority leader of the GOP-led House, replacing Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., when Democrats elect their new leaders this week.

Pelosi has one challenger: Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, who calls himself a "big, big underdog." Ford, 32, says Pelosi is too far from the center and would lead the party to further defeat.

A close Pelosi ally, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., described her colleague this way: "She is, first and foremost, pragmatic. Ideologically, is she a liberal? Yes. But she will cast her vote and doesn't try to change someone's mind on those kinds of votes. She is someone who knows how to build, knows how to lead."

The liberal label, which Pelosi welcomes, has been used by her opponents and Republicans to suggest that she will be unable to win over moderate, independent voters.

Before he dropped out of the race for Democratic leader on Friday, Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, said Pelosi's effectiveness would be limited because her politics "are to the left."

There is no doubt where she stands. Pelosi represents a liberal congressional district, taking in most of San Francisco. Her votes against the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq and in support of such domestic initiatives as needle exchange programs for AIDS sufferers reflect her constituency.

Pelosi, who dealt with the same issue when she became Democrats' chief vote-counter in February, addressed the criticism. "I don't think they chose me as an outspoken San Francisco liberal," she said. "I think they chose me as a person who can lead the caucus to victory."

By all accounts, Pelosi has run a collegial whip operation, recruiting Democrats from across the spectrum to sway rank-and-file lawmakers and round up votes on behalf of the party.

That quality will be tested when she tries to unify historically fractious Democrats to confront Republicans on economic issues, where she has said the party will make its stand.

Pelosi was 47 before she won her first election, after raising five children with her businessman husband, Paul. But she has been involved in politics all her life. Her father was a New Deal congressman from Maryland and later the mayor of Baltimore. Her brother also served as Baltimore's mayor.

Pelosi has led a charmed political life. She was hand-picked to run for Congress by the dying Rep. Sala Burton, whose seat Pelosi won in a special election in 1987.

She has never lost an election.

Pelosi offers congressional Democrats the most charismatic leader they have had in recent times, said Rep. Bob Matsui, D-Calif.

She has a special appeal to women, who responded effusively at campaign stops across the country to her description of being the first woman to sit in on meetings between the congressional leadership and the president.

But Pelosi's allies pointed to her ability to work across partisan lines, notably in her role as the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Pelosi has said that her experience on that committee and her service on the Appropriations Committee will prove useful as Democratic leader.

Her party will need to pick up about a dozen seats in the 2004 elections to gain control of the House, Pelosi's goal.