Thursday, October 19, 2006

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s prospects for becoming the nation’s first female House speaker depend not only on a Democratic victory in November but also on her ability to prevent any Democrats from voting against her — primarily centrists opposed to her liberal stances.

At least one Democratic House candidate has pledged not to support Mrs. Pelosi, and others in conservative districts have refused to commit their support — potentially leaving Mrs. Pelosi shy of the 218 votes required for the chamber’s top post.

Democrat Charlie Stuart, who hopes to unseat Republican Rep. Ric Keller in Florida, already has said he opposes Mrs. Pelosi and would prefer Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the more conservative No. 2 Democrat in the House whose strained relations with Mrs. Pelosi have been well-chronicled on Capitol Hill.

“He’s a centrist,” Stuart spokeswoman Sultana Ali said of the Florida Democrat. “His values really are more in line with Steny Hoyer than Nancy Pelosi.”

At least three other Democrats contacted by The Washington Times refused to commit their support to Mrs. Pelosi, whose San Francisco district is far more liberal than the districts that are up for grabs in this election.

Ordinarily, a party’s leadership structure is set by the caucus in advance, and all members are expected go along with the decision. In the eight years Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, has been speaker, he’s never had a protest vote cast against him.

Mrs. Pelosi, whose voting record is considerably more liberal than many of her fellow Democrats, has never enjoyed that luxury. In last year’s election for speaker, one Democrat opposed her for the top post. Four Democrats opposed her in 2003, with three of them simply voting “present” as a protest.

Such protest votes are a sign of dissension within a party. But in the upcoming Congress — where Democrats could hold the majority by just one or two seats — any members who vote for someone other than Mrs. Pelosi or simply decide not to vote could trigger parliamentary mayhem.

If Mrs. Pelosi were to fail to win, the speakership would go to the highest vote-getter, most likely Mr. Hastert. Democrats would later win it back by settling on a leader after an intraparty showdown that could pit Mrs. Pelosi against Mr. Hoyer.

But many insiders say Mrs. Pelosi has already moved to protect herself from Mr. Hoyer by privately encouraging another conservative Democrat — Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania — to announce earlier this year he will run for the party’s No. 2 position if Democrats gain control of the chamber. Mr. Murtha, who is conservative on many issues but has lately become a hero of the left for demanding that troops be withdrawn from Iraq, is considered a formidable challenger.

One of those who opposed Mrs. Pelosi in 2003 was former Rep. Ken Lucas, Kentucky Democrat, who retired the following year. Now he is trying to regain his seat from the Republican who replaced him, and Democrats list the race as among one of their most promising chances to pick up a seat in November.

The Lucas campaign did not return several phone messages inquiring whether he would support Mrs. Pelosi for speaker.

Rep. Gene Taylor, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi, refused to support Mrs. Pelosi in both past leadership elections. Each time, he has cast his protest vote for Mr. Murtha.

Next year, however, Mr. Taylor said he would support Mrs. Pelosi, at least if his was the deciding vote.

“If it comes down to Hastert or Pelosi, then I’m certainly not going to vote for Hastert,” he said. “I’m not going to vote against my own self-interest.”

Mr. Taylor said that voters in his district — which went 66 percent for President Bush in 2000 — don’t have much in common with Mrs. Pelosi, who visited recently to survey the damage left by Hurricane Katrina.

“People were very nice to her,” Mr. Taylor said.

Heath Shuler, the former Washington Redskins quarterback who is challenging Rep. Charles H. Taylor in North Carolina, is another Democrat running in a conservative district who refuses to say whether he would support Mrs. Pelosi for speaker.

“He will support whoever he thinks will best represent this district,” Shuler spokesman Andrew Whalen said.

Mr. Taylor’s campaign — like vulnerable Republican campaigns in conservative districts across the country — has gone to some effort to smear the Democratic candidate by association to Mrs. Pelosi.

Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said it’s a campaign that won’t work.

“Republicans are without a single winning issue, so it’s no wonder they are desperately trying to falsely smear a churchgoing grandmother who has made fiscal responsibility, bipartisanship and middle-class tax cuts a priority,” she said.

In some races, such as Democrat Brad Ellsworth’s effort to unseat Republican Rep. John Hostettler in Indiana, the charge has become so heavy that the Democrat ran a television commercial pleading with voters that the election “isn’t about Nancy Pelosi.” Mr. Ellsworth also refuses to say he will support Mrs. Pelosi for speaker.

Said Gene Taylor of Mississippi: “I still wish Jack Murtha would run for speaker. He’s pro-gun, pro-life, a real conservative.”

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