The collapse of Richard Gephardt’s leadership of the House Democratic Caucus did not occur on November 5, when the party lost seats in an election where history and economic trends suggested that it should have gained them. That result was simply a confirmation of the crisis that had been evident for more than a year. From the first days of George W. Bush’s selected-not-elected presidency, it was clear that Gephardt was unprepared to serve as the leader of Congressional opposition to a Republican president. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he simply stopped trying. That doomed Democratic chances of taking over the House in 2002, as Gephardt failed to define an opposition agenda and took positions out of sync with his own caucus.

That was never more evident than on October 10 when, after Gephardt helped craft the resolution authorizing Bush to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq, the majority of House Democrats voted against the plan. In surprising result, 126 House Democrats opposed it with only 81 joining their leader Gephardt in supporting it.

Among the Democrats who opposed the resolution was House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who won the caucus’ Number 2 leadership position last year. Pelosi, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, argued — as did Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, D-Florida — that the Bush administration had failed to make a case for its position. “I have seen no evidence or intelligence that suggests that Iraq indeed poses an imminent threat to our nation,” she said, in one of the most powerful indictments of the resolution. “If the Administration has that information, they have not shared it with the Congress.”

Pelosi’s stance placed her in direct opposition not just to the Bush administration but to Gephardt. And it stirred immediate discussion among House Democrats about what it might be like to be a genuine opposition party. An aggressive progressive, Pelosi has long argued that Democrats need to clearly distinguish themselves from Republicans on domestic and international issues. Now, she can point to Tuesday’s election results — in which Democrats who opposed the Bush agenda on taxes and war ran better than those who compromised with the administration — as confirmation of her view.

With Gephardt stepping down as minority leader, Pelosi is running hard to replace him. She is not starting from scratch. Speculation about Gephardt’s departure — in order to focus on a 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — was rampant in the House even before the election, and Pelosi has been quietly organizing support. But she was not alone in that endeavor. Another prominent House Democrat, Caucus chair Martin Frost, D-Texas, has been running just as hard as Pelosi. On Thursday, a third candidate, Harold Ford, Jr., a 33-year-old centrist from Tennessee, entered the contest with a promise of “a clean break from the ways of the past.”

With Gephardt’s announcement that he is stepping aside, the contest for the top Democratic leadership post in the House went into high gear. Democrats are set to choose a replacement for the minority leader on November 14. Pelosi is generally seen as the frontrunner, while Frost is expected to be her most serious competitor for the spot. Ford, a close ally of former Vice President Al Gore who is attempting to position himself as a youthful alternative is not expected to prevail — but his run will do nothing to harm his status as one of the party’s rising stars.

Pelosi is reported to have collected commitments from 110 House Democrats to support her candidacy. That would be more than enough to secure the position in a House that, depending on final results from Tuesday, will include 204 Democratic representatives and five delegates from US territories and the District of Columbia.

Commitments of this sort are no guarantee of support in the closed caucus vote, however, and Pelosi’s backers do not intend to coast through the next several days. They know they will be involved in a serious internal campaign against Frost, one of the ablest strategists in the House.

It would be a mistake to see the Pelosi-Frost fight purely as a left-right struggle. Pelosi is one of the most progressive members of the House, with a voting record that frequently displays 100 percent support for the positions advanced by organized labor, environmental and consumer groups. But Frost, despite his Texas roots, is no southern conservative. He too has earned his share of 100 percent AFL-CIO ratings over the years. Pelosi has support from some conservative Democrats, who see her as an able fund raiser and an effective spokesperson for the caucus. Frost has liberal supporters who respect the leadership role he’s played in coordinating congressional campaigns over the years.

That said, there are clear distinctions. Where Pelosi was a leading foe of the Iraq resolution, Frost supported it. Pelosi has in recent years been an outspoken critic of the corporate free-trade agenda, while Frost has a mixed record that includes a vote to permanently normalize trade relations with China. (That vote by Frost so angered local United Auto Workers members that, in 2000, they removed desks that had been donated for use in the congressman’s campaign office. He has since been more supportive of labor’s position on trade issues.)

For his part, Ford stands well to the right of both Pelosi and Frist. He voted for the Iraq resolution, regularly supports the corporate free-trade agenda and has a long record of cosy relations with the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. In short, he stands to the right of where Gephardt positioned himself.

While Pelosi and Frost both have more liberal records than Ford, Frost is clearly attempting to position himself to the right in the leadership contest. That was obvious as Frost and Pelosi staked out their visions for how House Democrats should present themselves in the next Congress. “I think that (Pelosi’s) politics are to the left, and I think that the party, to be successful, must speak to the broad center of the country,” said Frost. The day after Tuesday’s vote, Frost’s spokesman Tom Eisenhauer was even blunter, telling reporters, “The country moved to the right yesterday. And House Democrats won’t win the majority by moving further to the left.”

Pelosi, for her part, is arguing that Democrats need to distinguish themselves from Republicans. “To win back the House in 2004,” she says, “we need a unified party that will draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and that espoused by the Republicans.”