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Pelosi Sees ’06 House Gains

Six months into her second term as the top House Democrat, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) laid out her strategy for victory in 2006 and staked her reputation on the party picking up seats in the next election.

Pelosi, in a wide-ranging interview on politics and policy, made no firm promise that her party would regain control of the House, but said if the “election were held today,” Democrats would prevail. She said Democrats are on strong footing on the major issues of the day — Social Security, the ethics of the GOP majority and the war in Iraq — and have the political machine in place to win seats.

“I would say that today we would win,” Pelosi said. “I could not honestly tell you what will happen 16 months from now.”

When asked whether she would at least bank her credibility on House Democratic pickups, Pelosi said: “Yes. I think we will make gains, it’s just a question of how many.”

In her position since January 2003, Pelosi made the vow after a stunning 2004 election that left the House Democrats with a net loss of three seats and the party out of power on all fronts. And while she was willing to promise Democratic gains, she refused to set a timeline for her own tenure as leader and likewise declined to lay out benchmarks for determining her success or failure as leader. Pelosi said she is focused only on winning, not on setting time-specific markers for success.

“We’ve got a team, we’re going out on the field together,” Pelosi said. “I’m not sending signals to the other side as to how long I will stay here.

“I’ll put it this way: I have an appropriate handle on what I think needs to be done and how to get it done, and whether that takes two or four years to do it we shall see.”

The former Minority Whip said Democrats have enjoyed solid recruiting so far this cycle by already locking in 19 candidates in open and GOP held seats, showing record fundraising and putting together a massive rapid response effort to combat Republican proposals and attacks.

Democrats, who now hold 202 of 435 House seats, must seize 15 Republican-held seats and keep all of their own in 2006 to regain the majority.

Pelosi said Democrats are targeting as many as 50 districts for pickups this cycle, and if they can win a third of those, they have a good shot. She added that the polling Democrats are seeing is showing “devastating things” about how the Republicans are running the country.

“People want a change,” she said. “People want a change from a policy standpoint and an ethical standpoint.”

The California Democrat said the political environment is far better for House Democrats this cycle given it is a mid-term election and history is on the minority party’s side, they no longer have the impossible hurdle of overcoming Texas redistricting and do not have to reckon with the Bush 11th hour get-out-the-vote operation.

Pelosi also noted that senior citizens did not come out to vote in the numbers they should have for her party last November, but said that should be different this cycle given the Democrats’ focus on ethics and keeping Social Security intact.

The 10-term lawmaker said Democrats have seen one of their greatest successes this Congress on Social Security, hammering the Bush administration so hard that now nearly two-thirds of the country is against any privatization of the program. She said Democrats had to go on the attack if they were to ever be in a position to bargain with the GOP.

“It was important for us to take him down, destroy [Bush’s] brand,” Pelosi said of the Democratic offensive. “We accept that we are the protectors of Social Security and we understand that we must [reform] it in a bipartisan way.

“We had to destroy his brand,” she continued. “We’ve done that. … He’s now perceived as the guy who wants to cut my benefits.”

While Democrats continue to see positive returns on the Social Security message, she said they are prepared to “pivot” to other issues including priorities of education, jobs and health care. Social Security has dominated Democrats’ attention, she said, because it was the top priority of the White House and the GOP.

Pelosi acknowledged past difficulty breaking through against the Republicans on issues of national and global security. But the Democratic leader also said she believes Members are “channeling their energies” on the Iraqi conflict and its push for a successful outcome in the region.

Pelosi said Democrats’ message on national security is centered on “making America safer,” whether by investigating prisoner abuses or ensuring troop safety or a conclusion to the war in Iraq. The rub for the party on conveying that theme, she said, came in 2004 in a presidential election where voters wrestled with not only electing a head of state, but also a commander in chief.

“With the presidential [election], the commander in chief role is an issue that is dispositive of how people vote. The irony of it is is what the president is doing is not making America safer, and that’s really a tragedy.”

Looking back to last cycle, Pelosi said she felt confident heading into the 2004 November elections given the party’s success in special elections in Kentucky and South Dakota and because of the strength of Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

She said while “rarely surprised” in politics, the 2004 election took her aback. She said she didn’t expect Democrats to win all three chambers, but privately counted on Kerry taking the White House.

“I really thought he was going to win,” she said.

On measuring her own success so far as the Democratic leader, Pelosi gave herself high marks for bringing House Democrats together and unifying around their values and issues.

She said there is a sequence to leadership, and now that the first phase of her leadership is complete, she can now focus more intently on “establishing our priorities” and “distilling our message.”

“What we haven’t done well as a party is distilling that message,” she said. “That’s where we haven’t made steps forward.

“It’s not about how many seats [we win],” Pelosi added. “ It’s about making progress and working as a team.”

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