"From the standpoint of commitments, this race is over," House Whip Nancy Pelosi said Friday, as the California Democrat announced that a majority of her colleagues had committed to support her candidacy to replace House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri.
Gephardt revealed Thursday that he would step down from the minority leader position, after Democrats lost their fourth consecutive attempt to retake control of the House in elections two days earlier. That announcement set in place a fast-paced campaign to replace the veteran leader, with a vote by the caucus set for next Thursday.
Initially, it was expected that Pelosi, who argues that Democrats must be more aggressive in challenging the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans, would face House Democratic Caucus chair Martin Frost, D-Texas. But Frost blew up his candidacy with a Thursday press conference in which he attacked Pelosi and seemed to suggest that he wanted to temper the party's message in a way that raised genuine concern among House Democrats. "It sounded like Martin was saying we wanted to make the Democratic message even fuzzier," said one senior Democrat. "After we just finished a campaign where we suffered terribly because we were so unfocused, everyone agrees that we have to sharpen the message, not weaken it."
Frost faced an uphill battle to begin with: Pelosi had already obtained public commitments of support from 111 of her colleagues -- a majority of the caucus members who would vote in the leadership race. The reaction among House members to Frost's press conference made it clear he was not going to break Pelosi backers loose. Thus, on Friday, Frost announced that, "It is clear to me that Nancy Pelosi has the votes of a majority of the caucus."
Frost took the additional step of endorsing Pelosi. "Nancy Pelosi is a talented and capable party leader," Frost wrote in a letter to his colleagues. "I intend to support her for Democratic leader in next week's election, and I will work with her to do everything I can to return Democrats to control of the House of Representatives."
That message undercut the prospects of a late-starting challenge to Pelosi from Tennessee Representative Harold Ford, Jr. Ford's candidacy is generally seen as an attempt by the 32-year-old congressman to raise his profile in the House, rather than a serious bid for the top leadership position. But that has not stopped him from attempting to turn the contest into an ideological duel.
Ford, one of the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus, has been aggressive in his criticism of Pelosi. The Californian, he suggests, it too liberal and too prone toward "obstructionist opposition." In a press conference Friday, he bragged about his ability to work closely with Republicans.
Ford has done a lot of that. He is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, the most conservative organized faction of House Democrats. By contrast, Pelosi has been associated with the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Where Pelosi joined the majority of House Democrats in opposing a Congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq, Ford was an outspoken supporter of the measure. Where Pelosi has sided with labor, environmental and consumer groups -- as well as the overwhelming majority of House Democrats -- to oppose the corporate free trade agenda, Ford has regularly sided with the Bush administration on trade issues.
Referring to his cooperation with Republicans, Ford said Friday, "I think I'm better at doing that than Nancy."
For her part, Pelosi argued at a press conference later in the afternoon that she was willing to look for common ground with Republicans. But, she added, "Where (Democrats) do not have that common ground, we must stand our ground."