Rep. Nancy Pelosi, in line to become speaker of the House, stepped into a postelection power struggle among fellow Democrats on Sunday with a letter of support for Rep. Jack Murtha in the race to pick a majority leader.

"Your presence in the leadership of our party would add a knowledgeable and respected voice to our Democratic team," Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote Murtha. The Pennsylvania lawmaker is widely viewed as an underdog in a two-man race with Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer in this week's leadership elections.

Murtha issued a statement saying, "I am deeply gratified to receive the support of Speaker Pelosi, a tireless advocate for change and a true leader for our party and our country."

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Hoyer has been second-ranking in the Democratic leadership behind Pelosi the past four years. He issued a statement saying he was confident he would win the race.

"Nancy told me some time ago that she would personally support Jack. I respect her decision as the two are very close," Hoyer's statement said.

Pelosi and Hoyer have long been rivals within the party caucus, while she and Murtha are allies of long standing.

Murtha, a former Marine who is respected for his knowledge of defense issues, gained national attention last year when he said U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Iraq.

Murtha announced last fall he intended to run for majority leader if Democrats won control of the House, a pre-election jab at Hoyer at a time the Marylander was pledging support for Pelosi.

Both Hoyer and Murtha traveled on behalf of Democratic candidates during the campaign. Hoyer's office said he visited 82 congressional districts and raised or contributed $8.2 million to the party's candidates in the months leading to the elections. No comparable figures were immediately available for Murtha's efforts.

Since the election, Hoyer has released letters of support in the leadership race from senior Democrats as well as from more than half of the incoming lawmakers who won their seats last week.

In her letter, Pelosi began by noting that Murtha had requested her support. Noting his opposition to the war, she added, "Your leadership gave so many Americans, including respected military leaders, the encouragement to voice their own disapproval at a failed policy that weakens our military and makes stability in that region even more difficult to achieve."

One of Hoyer's supporters, Rep.-elect Baron Hill of Indiana, depicted Pelosi's letter as good news for the Maryland lawmaker. Hill said the letter was a statement of personal intent, adding, "She's not asking other members to vote for Murtha."

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