WASHINGTON – Republicans are getting ready for their Senate leadership race Wednesday, but the real knockdown, drag-out competition is in the House, where two Democrats have launched a bloody campaign to become the No. 2 man to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the next Congress.
House Democrats are being asked to choose between current Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Pelosi friend Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., in the race for the majority leader post in the 110th Congress that starts in January.
Thursday's vote is a secret ballot, but supporters for both candidates on Tuesday offered their support publicly. Nine ranking members of the 21 House committees collectively said they are backing Hoyer, who has been the No. 2 Democrat behind Pelosi since 2003.
"Since he was elected whip, Steny has continually reached out to us — as the ranking Democrats on House Committees — as we worked together on our Democratic proposals, message, floor tactics and strategy. And, Steny has proven time and time again that he has the skills, ability and energy to help our diverse caucus achieve consensus — and succeed," wrote the letter signed by the vice chairmen of such committees as Armed Services, Budget, Energy and Commerce, Homeland Security and International Relations.
In a separate letter, 33 moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats also endorsed Hoyer, citing his understanding of challenges they face representing swing districts.
"We represent constituents whose views and interests are often somewhat different than those served by other members of our caucus. As such, it is critical that we have representation in the House leadership that understands what it takes for us to get elected," the group said.
"Often, this includes casting tough votes and working with our Republican colleagues. These decisions are not easy but they are the choices we must make to do the right thing for our districts and the country. Steny understands the challenges we face. He never questions our loyalty to the party and he works hard to ensure that we are treated fairly," the letter reads.
Not to be outdone, four Democratic members of Congress on Tuesday offered their reasoning why Murtha should get the nod from his colleagues.
"We saw on Election Day that countless Democratic candidates were able to articulate alternative visions on Iraq because of the leadership of the 37-year Marine who had taken the lead for us," reads the letter from Reps. Bart Stupak, Anthony Weiner, Rush Holt and Representative-elect Patrick Murphy, who served in Iraq.
"Jack Murtha as our majority leader will allow us to win back our rightful place as the party of national security in much the same way that Bill Clinton's smart plans on the economy, welfare reform and crime strengthened our party on those issues," the letter continues.
Murtha, a Vietnam veteran who last year proposed a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, has already won endorsement from Pelosi, but he is opposed by some liberals who say they are not happy with the Pennsylvania lawmaker's pro-gun and anti-abortion record.
On Tuesday, Murtha tried to duplicate Nov. 7's winning strategy for Democrats by trying to make the leadership race about Iraq policy.
"Of the critical issues we are faced with today, the war in Iraq is the most crucial. The Pelosi-Murtha position on the war is the reason the Democrats are in the majority today. Congressman Hoyer's position has been to stay the course with President Bush from the very beginning and, like Sen. John McCain, he advocates sending in more troops," Murtha said.
After Murtha's statement, Hoyer's office shot back.
"Congressman Hoyer and Congressman Murtha have joined other Democratic leaders from both the House and Senate in signing three letters to the president that outline the consensus among Democrats regarding Iraq," said Stacey Farnen Bernards, Hoyer's press secretary. "Any representation that Congressman Hoyer endorses a 'stay-the-course' strategy or advocates sending more troops to Iraq is wrong."
Murtha's office then responded by paraphrasing what they say is Hoyer's position that Murtha's withdrawal suggestion would be disastrous to U.S. national security.
"Steny Hoyer has chosen not to join 105 of his House colleagues in co-sponsoring Jack Murtha's resolution to redeploy our troops," said Murtha spokesman Andrew Koneschusky. "The record is clear: Jack Murtha has been a constant voice for change in Iraq and Steny Hoyer has not."
At a news conference Tuesday, Hoyer said he still expects to win the post. He also played down stories about the chilly relationship between him and Pelosi.
"The reports of dissension are much greater than the reality of the dissension," said Hoyer, adding that his teamwork with Pelosi has led to "the most successful Democratic caucus in the last half century."
"We know how to do it and we know that we need to continue to do it and we will," he said.
The amount of pressure applied by Pelosi on behalf of Murtha could be the deciding factor in the race, and it's unclear how much she will push. Murtha and Pelosi have long been allies, and Murtha agreed to shut down his campaign for the post prior to the November election after Pelosi asked Murtha not to divide the party before Democrats win majority rule in the House.
Three-term Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said he backs Hoyer, but has not been pressured by Pelosi or others to change his mind and support Murtha instead.
FOX News' Molly Hooper and The Associated Press contributed to this report.