WASHINGTON (AP) — Two House veterans, Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Martin Frost, jumped into a race for Democratic leader on Thursday, and the jabbing began at once over the future of a party reeling from midterm election losses.
“I think that her 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, a Texan whose rival represents most of San Francisco.
Pelosi, judged by party officials to be the front-runner in the race, sidestepped the attack and turned her fire on the GOP instead. “We must draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and the extreme policies put forward by the Republicans,” she said in a statement. “We cannot allow Republicans to pretend they share our values and then legislate against those values without consequence.”
The two began their race as the party’s leader, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, told members of the rank-and-file he would not seek another term in the job he has held for eight years.
Democrats “need a leader for the next two years who can devote his or her undivided attention to putting our party back in the majority,” Gephardt said.
“It’s time for me personally to take a different direction <#201> and take on this president and the Republican Party from a different vantage point,” he added in remarks pointing toward a possible campaign for the White House in 2004.
Later, in an interview in the Capitol office he soon will vacate, the Missouri Democrat said he intends to take the oath of office for a new term next month and has no firm plans beyond that. “I’ll look at running for president,” he said, “I’ve done it before and I know a lot about it.”
While Pelosi, 62, and Frost, 60, have served side by side for years, they have charted different courses in the House, and have taken different positions on recent high-profile issues.
Pelosi, who is her party’s senior member on the intelligence committee, voted against legislation that authorized President Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Frost supported it.
Frost, a former party campaign chairman, was a late, reluctant recruit to the battle for legislation to reduce the role of money in politics, expressing concern about the impact of the law on the party’s ability to compete for funds with Republicans. One of Pelosi’s first successes as party whip was to round up enough votes to pass the measure.
On another key issue this year, though, the leadership rivals both voted against legislation strengthening Bush’s ability to negotiate international trade deals.
Several party aides said Pelosi, who won an eighth term from her California district this week, begins the leadership race as the favorite.
She prevailed a year ago in a competition to become the party’s whip, and represents a state that will have 33 Democrats in the House next year.
Additionally, Pelosi is likely to begin with the support of many Democratic liberals, and of several Democratic women, as she bids to become the first female leader of either party in either house of Congress.
Frost was elected from his Dallas-area district for a 13th term on Tuesday. In addition to his current leadership post, he was in charge of the party’s redistricting effort over the past two years. He served two terms as chairman of the Democratic campaign organization. And while Democrats failed to capture the House in those elections, he noted at his news conference that they gained seats both times.
Party aides said his base in the leadership election would include fellow Texans, as well as moderate lawmakers from Southern and Western districts where Pelosi’s brand of liberalism would not be so well received.
Officials said roughly 207 Democrats would be eligible to vote in the leadership election next week, with the precise number dependent on a few races still unsettled. A simple majority will be enough for victory.
The Democrats, who lost seats this week, will be installing new leaders in the top leadership jobs for the first time since the party was thrust into the minority eight years ago.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland is in line to become whip, little more than a year after Pelosi defeated him for the job.
Two lawmakers are vying for Frost’s current position as head of the caucus, Frank Menendez of New Jersey and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
But Gephardt’s successor will serves as the public face of the party in the House, as its primary legislative tactician and its fund-raiser-in-chief for the 2004 elections.
Pelosi’s office has sought over the past two days to minimize the talk of an ideological divide. But Frost sought insistently to cast the election as the choice between a liberal with limited national appeal and a moderate with a message that can be effective nationally.
“Al Gore carried only 200 of the 435 congressional districts in the last election,” he said. “There are districts that Bush carried that we will have to carry if we’re to be the majority part, and we can only do that if we speak broadly from the center of the political spectrum in this country.”
Democrats fared poorly Tuesday in many of the races in Southern and Western districts where the battle for House control was settled, and even some incumbents were held to relatively small re-election majorities.
Asked whether he thought any Democrats would switch parties if Pelosi were elected leader, Frost said, “I’m not going to suggest that anyone’s going to bolt the party over the election.”