WASHINGTON – Rep. Nancy Pelosi stuffs cotton in her ears when she takes her grandkids to a rock concert. She's so petite that a policeman once lifted her out of her shoes during an evacuation of the Capitol. She's a chocoholic with a great giggle.
And she's Exhibit A as Republicans argue that Americans would be crazy to let Democrats take over the House.
"A disaster," former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich warns, calling the prospect of the San Francisco-area congresswoman standing third in the line of presidential succession truly frightening. "A hyperpartisan obstructionist," a GOP campaign tract pronounces.
Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, has twice presented Republican Dennis Hastert with the speaker's gavel as the GOP extended its control of the House for two more years. "This is getting tiresome, Mr. Speaker," Pelosi joked last time.
Now, heading into the November elections in which Democrats have their best chance yet of retaking the House after 12 years in the minority, all sides are taking the measure of the woman who would become the first "Madam Speaker" if her party succeeds.
"It's the battle of definitions," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California who has written extensively about Congress. "If the Republicans have their way, she's a wacko San Francisco liberal; if Democrats have their way she's an Italian-American grandmother."
Or, as Pelosi described herself this week: "An Italian Catholic mother of five, grandmother of five, going on six."
In truth, Pelosi, born Nancy D'Alesandro, is an energetic, street-smart politician from Baltimore, a liberal who knows that the key to leading the fractious House Democrats is to accommodate the broad spectrum of views in the party when possible and come down hard to enforce unity when necessary.
Pelosi, the daughter and sister of Baltimore mayors, moved west in her 20s because her investment banker husband wanted to return to his roots. She managed to work herself into California's Democratic political structure while raising five children who were born over six years. She was first elected to Congress when her youngest daughter reached high school.
The 66-year-old Pelosi represents one of the country's most liberal congressional districts, taking in much of San Francisco. She has a voting record that consistently gets her laurels from liberal interest groups and raspberries from conservatives.
She also is a pragmatist.
"She's good at counting noses, which means that she'll do everything she can to represent the whole caucus," says Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "She'll have to."
California Rep. Dennis Cardoza, one the Blue Dog Democrats who advocate fiscal restraint, is quick to point out that Pelosi has promised to make an early push for reinstating "pay-as-you-go" budgeting rules. These require that any tax cuts or increases in entitlement spending be paid for by raising taxes or cutting spending elsewhere.
"You wear members out if you ask them to go to the well on every single vote," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who has known Pelosi for three decades.
But, Eshoo adds, "When it comes to the votes that really define Democratic Party principles, she, in her very strengthful and convincing way, sits down with one member after another to present that case."
Pelosi presides over a Democratic caucus, united against President Bush, in which members voted with their party 88 percent of the time in 2005, one of the most cohesive records in decades, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly.
That is not to suggest the party lacks fissures, though, or that Pelosi operates only through gentle persuasion.
Black members, for example, were irked earlier this year when Pelosi successfully pushed to strip Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, of his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee while an FBI bribery investigation is still under way.
In 2002, Pelosi raised eyebrows by giving a political contribution to one of two House Democrats who were being thrown into the same, newly redrawn congressional district in Michigan. It was no coincidence that Pelosi backed Rep. Lynn Rivers, who had supported Pelosi's bid to become Democratic whip, over Rep. John Dingell, who had been allied with Pelosi's competition. Dingell won.
Pelosi helps instill loyalty with cold cash: Her political action committee, PAC to the Future, has given nearly $450,000 to federal candidates this election cycle, which ranks 15th among all leadership PACs and is exceeded by only two other Democrats, according to the private Center for Responsive Politics.
"No one is working harder to bring us out of the desert," says Eshoo. "This woman is a human tornado."
Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker said that as a leader of the Democratic minority, Pelosi has been tireless at "conducting a guerrilla warfare against a vastly superior force." Her weaknesses, he said, include the Democrats' failure to offer a clear message to counter the Republicans and her sometimes halting television presence. "She needs some work in the green room," he said.
"My hunch is that there is some uneasiness in the House about her as speaker," Baker said, saying that such reservations are tied partly to her representation of such a liberal district.
Pelosi demurs when asked to talk about a potential Speaker Pelosi's agenda, saying she is focused for now on Nov. 7, when Democrats need to pick up 15 House seats to take control of the House. But she has promised to put in reforms to make the House operate with more civility, fairness and fiscal accountability.
Early policy actions probably would include a push to:
— Heading into the November elections in which Democrats have their best chance yet of retaking the House after 12 years in the minority, all sides are taking the measure of the woman who would become the first "Madam Speaker" if her party succeeds. increase the minimum wage.
— revise the Medicare prescription drug program to provide more help to the elderly.
— put in place recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.
— overhaul immigration policy.
— make it easier to get student loans.
— reduce subsidies for oil companies.
With Pelosi leading the House, Democrats could be expected to let most of Bush's tax cuts expire and block any new effort to privatize parts of Social Security.
Pitney, the California political scientist, predicts that Pelosi's talk of treating Republicans more fairly than they have dealt with Democrats "would be the first casualty of a Pelosi speakership. ... With a narrow majority and a lot of passionate partisans on her side, she is going to have to play very, very tough with procedure."
The president merely snapped, "That's not going to happen," when The Wall Street Journal asked him what Pelosi might be like as speaker.
But other Republicans are happy to expound on the likely hallmarks of a Pelosi-led House, using them as a GOP rallying cry.
In a recent eight-page release, "America Weakly," the Republican National Committee cast Pelosi as a tax-raising, soft-on-terrorim, extreme-on-abortion, questionable-on-ethics liberal who wants the nation to "cut-and-run" from Iraq and would focus on "launching bitter partisan investigations" of the Bush administration, including possible impeachment hearings.
Eager to douse any speculation about impeachment, Pelosi's office earlier this year put out word that she privately had advised the Democratic caucus that impeachment was off the table.
"It speaks volumes that she felt it necessary to deny it," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres.