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Nancy Pelosi puts her stamp on the House

Nancy Pelosi is a master tactician and the most powerful speaker in a half century. Behind her personal brand of power politics – and whether she will still be speaker after the midterm elections.

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It's one reason the National Republican Congressional Committee is blitzing the 2010 House campaign with anti-Pelosi ads. "That's the narrative for congressional races across the country," says NRCC spokesman Tory Mazzola. "We have a picture of [Rep.] Kathy Dahlkemper [(D) of Pennsylvania] standing right behind Nancy Pelosi when they unveiled the health-care bill, and we want to make sure voters see that before they make up their minds."

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Yet Republicans will have to do more than demonize Pelosi to recapture Congress. In the May 18 special election in southwest Pennsylvania, Republican businessman Tim Burns targeted the speaker, too. "I think I'm really looking forward to telling Nancy Pelosi to her face what I think of her," he told retired coal miners with some brio at the College Town Diner in Waynesburg, Pa. National GOP groups piled on with anti-Pelosi ads. Mr. Burns lost to Democrat Mark Critz by eight points.

Pelosi still has a formidable capacity to raise funds for party members. She has collected $28.7 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the current election cycle, compared with $12 million cash on hand for the NRCC. She travels widely, but selectively.

"I pay no attention to it," says Ed Festor, a civil engineer in Uniontown, Pa. "She's tough. She'll go toe to toe with some real brawlers, and she doesn't flinch. She'll hang in there."

Maybe so. But there's a reason most speakers have chosen to keep a lower profile. It is, after all, the "Peoples' House." Members must fit their districts, and that's complicated by a highly visible speaker who doesn't.

Pelosi insists that Democrats will be in the majority after the midterm elections. Should Democrats lose their majority – or enough seats to spark a caucus coup – she could go the way of Gingrich, who started his speakership as Time magazine Man of the Year and resigned four years later, after Republicans lost five seats in the 1998 elections.

Either way, this fall will likely mean change for Pelosi. If Democrats must govern with a smaller majority, it could mean asking conservatives and moderates to take more tough votes for the team or reaching out to Republicans.

Like the maiden floating in the mural at the entrance to her office, she may continue a career-long capacity to rally support not visible to others. Or that sheaf the maiden carries might have to become an olive branch, proffered to the opposition.

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