WASHINGTON – For Rep. Steny Hoyer, vying to become the newly-Democratic House majority leader, the silence of a sometime-rival and fellow Maryland native is golden, political insiders say.
Hoyer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who in January will become the first female speaker, have had a strained relationship since both ran for minority leader in 2002, but analysts say that the tension may be an asset to Democrats as they try to shape their agenda.
Both leaders were congratulated personally last week by President Bush, who praised the Democrats' "disciplined campaign" at a press conference following the midterm election.
But House leadership elections, cast by secret ballot and slated for Nov. 16, loom large for the area's longest-serving congressman.
These contests are "the ultimate inside political deal," that members take very seriously, said Richard E. Cohen, a congressional correspondent for National Journal.
Last summer, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a close political ally of Pelosi's, announced he would challenge Hoyer, who is now minority whip, for the majority leader post. Murtha won publicity last year by surprising many fellow Democrats in calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq last year.
Murtha does not appear to have qualms about playing the Pelosi card in his campaign.
"Steny Hoyer has campaigned against Nancy Pelosi not only openly, but under the table for the last two or three years," he said on National Public Radio. "This is an open seat."
Analysts agree that Pelosi will want to avoid an inter-party blood bath at all costs, and that Hoyer is an obvious choice given their successful teamwork in unifying the caucus.
"I'm gonna win," Hoyer said Friday. "There's no doubt in my mind. I have the votes of the majority of the existing members and I think I'll have the majority of the votes of the new members."
"I would be very surprised if Pelosi let this turn into a food fight," said Zach P. Messitte, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
Jonathan Allen, a House leadership reporter for Congressional Quarterly, agreed. The race hasn't gotten nasty yet, he said, and Pelosi's refusal to weigh in speaks volumes.
With her silence, Pelosi is making a decision in Hoyer's favor, said Allen. Though she is very close to Murtha, Pelosi's lack of a stance on the race tacitly allows her allies to make up their own minds.
The more moderate Hoyer has received bipartisan support in his own district and is known on Capitol Hill for his success in galvanizing the party as whip since 2003.
It is these skills that he will bring as a consensus builder in the diverse caucus, he has said.
Hoyer is in a good position to curry favor given his non-stop stumping on behalf of Democrats this season.
Hoyer spent much of the election season on the road and still won about 83 percent of the vote against a Green Party candidate to win his 14th term representing Maryland's 5th District.
He campaigned, recruited, and fundraised in 80 districts this cycle, said press secretary Tim Schlittner.
Hoyer is certainly the frontrunner, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. Van Hollen should know: He spearheaded the successful Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red to Blue," campaign which brought in more than two dozen new Democrats to Congress.
Bringing Democrats together is "sometimes like herding cats," Van Hollen said, but Hoyer has proven his ability to reach out to people when it comes to key issues and to act as a mentor to freshman representatives.
Congressman-elect Brad Ellsworth, who handily beat a Republican incumbent in Indiana's 8th District, said he will likely back Hoyer, with whom he has established a close relationship over the past year. Hoyer visited Ellsworth's District and the two spoke more than a dozen times in the week leading up to the election.
The first time Ellsworth spoke to Murtha was when he called to congratulate him on his victory, Ellsworth said.
The Democrats' good fortune in the midterm elections only strengthened Hoyer's hand, said Messitte.
"The Democrats that did well were middle-of-the-road moderates," he said.
Pelosi, a Maryland native whose father and brother served as mayor of Baltimore, has the image of being a left-winger and it would behoove her to back the more centrist Hoyer in the interests of party unity, Messitte said.
Van Hollen agreed that Pelosi has so far been neutral and even asked Murtha to shelve his leadership campaign until after the elections.
Any remaining tensions between Pelosi and Hoyer should be put aside or "they're going to wind up looking like the Keystone Kops," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Though the odds seem to favor Hoyer, the outcome of next week's election is anybody's guess.
"Outsiders have virtually no idea how these contests are conducted," said Cohen, though he's certain that all the members of the caucus are being lobbied and weighing the potential consequences of their votes. "Leadership contests often can be very tough, hard-nosed, even bitter politics."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.