THE EXPECTED ASCENSION of Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi to House minority leader has become a surprisingly important issue in another leadership race to be decided today. Pelosi's likely win has helped make the case for Robert Menendez of New Jersey to fill the opening for Democratic caucus chairman. Early odds had seemed to favor Connecticut's Rosa Delauro--like Pelosi, a female Dem with an almost perfect liberal voting record--to fill the number three leadership position. But the key issue has become whether or not Democrats want to be led by two "far left liberal women," as one Democratic staffer puts it.

With Pelosi in the driver's seat, Democrats will certainly be putting their most liberal foot forward. Ideologically, it's a surprising move. Consider: The party gets slapped hard in the midterm elections, mostly because of its failure to recognize the overriding importance of the war issue, loses seats in both houses and across a wide range of offices nationally, only to turn around and get ready to make a San Francisco lefty their leader in the House. Pelosi, along with 126 other Democrats, voted against the recent resolution authorizing the president to use military force against Iraq. The party also stalled on homeland security legislation, a move Bush used against them while campaigning for Republican candidates around the country.

In a moment of reluctant common sense, according to Democratic sources, House members may be drawing a line at Pelosi's advancement. Electing Robert Menendez to the number three spot would thus be a way of limiting the risk that the party will be perceived as interested primarily in class and gender politics. It also helps that Menendez is Hispanic, given the increasing importance of the Hispanic vote to both parties.

Currently the Democratic caucus vice chairman, Robert Menendez is known as a pro-business party leader. He is the choice of conservative "blue dog" Democrats. He is also the pick of the term-limited caucus chairman, Martin Frost, who last week backed out of the race for minority leader. "For the party to be successful," Frost recently said of a Pelosi-led Democratic party, "we must speak to the broad center of the country." Whether Menendez truly represent such an approach is another question. He voted against the Iraq resolution and his floor comments during the debate could have been written by Pelosi's office: He was highly critical of the president's argument that Iraq poses a clear and immediate danger to the United States.

His opponent, Rosa Delauro, a onetime director of Emily's List, is known as a loud floor speaker and is a vocal opponent of military action in Iraq except under the auspices of the United Nations. She also voted against the Iraq resolution, but is viewed as substantially more liberal than Menendez. A faithful Clinton backer, she is married to Stanley Greenberg, who worked as a pollster for the former president. Much the activist on women's issues and gun control, she has the usual bag of liberal stands on Social Security, a patients' bill of rights, and prescription drug benefits. Her image, however, of being, like Pelosi, a loud liberal female, may prevent her from being elected caucus chair, which would make her Pelosi's first victim.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.

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