By Eliott C. McLaughlin
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(CNN) -- With Tuesday's takeover of the House comes the near certainty that Democrats will elect the chamber's minority leader as the first madam speaker in U.S. history.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, knows how to play politics and has for a while. Perhaps that was best evidenced by the last three months, as the 10-term California congresswoman crisscrossed at least 18 states in her bid to propel her party to victory.
Her own race, in the San Francisco-based 8th District against Republican Mike DeNunzio, was over before it started, so Pelosi embarked on the mission of erasing the 30-seat advantage the GOP has held in the House. (Watch how Pelosi plans to change Washington -- 4:35 )
Speaking at the Capitol on Wednesday, Pelosi told reporters that Tuesday's Democratic landslide in the House elections was indicative of Americans desiring a "new direction," including a return to bipartisan civility and fairness in the nation's economy.
"But nowhere was the call for new direction more clear from the American people than in the war in Iraq. This is something that we must work on together with the president. We know that 'stay the course' is not working," she said. (Watch Pelosi talk about bipartisanship now that the campaign is over -- 12:45 )
Pelosi hasn't cowered from battles on her way to the top, whether it's President Bush lambasting her on tax cuts or the GOP calling her a "latte liberal" and using the prospect of her speakership as a scare tactic to sway voters.
"You go into the ring, you have to be ready to take your hits, and that's part of it," she said.
But Pelosi, 66, isn't afraid to dish out her own jabs, and said that things will be different with Democrats in power -- and with the House gavel in a woman's hands for the first time in the chamber's 217 years.
She has shot back at Bush, calling him everything from "incompetent" to "in denial and dangerous." She also has repeatedly threatened that once the Democrats take the House helm, "the president will have to have a different attitude now that he won't have a rubber-stamp Congress."
So what will be on the agenda come January? Pelosi has said that in the first 100 hours of her speakership she will push for action implementing all 9/11 Commission recommendations on national security, raising the minimum wage to $7.25, eliminating corporate subsidies for oil companies, allowing the government to negotiate Medicare drug prices, imposing new restrictions on lobbyists, cutting interest rates on college loans and supporting embryonic stem-cell research.
As for Iraq, Pelosi and the Democrats have yet to explicitly outline their plan for U.S. involvement in the region, but unlike many of her counterparts, Pelosi voted against authorizing the war.
And what about the persnickety allegation that she will skipper tax hikes through the House? Sure she will, said the shoo-in speaker.
"We will revisit the tax cuts at the high end in order to give tax cuts to the middle class," she said.
How she got here
Pelosi can't take too much credit for her party's triumph. On top of an unpopular president and war, Republicans, in the months before midterms, fell victim to a variety of scandals that undoubtedly played a role in giving the Democrats back the House they lost in 1994.
Republican Rep. Tom DeLay was indicted on state money-laundering charges in Texas (he has denied wrongdoing); Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio resigned his seat last week after pleading guilty in an influence-peddling investigation; and Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida resigned in September after his sexually explicit Internet messages to teen congressional pages surfaced.
"Maybe it takes a woman to clean house," said Pelosi, a mother of five. Asked if her remark was deliberately sexist, she replied, "It is. Because the fact is a woman represents what's new, because it's never happened before."
But she is not without her detractors, including moderates in her own party who worry privately that handing the San Francisco firebrand the gavel may paint all Democrats with a liberal brush.
Also, Republicans, who generally oppose her political ideals, openly warn that a Democratic majority will mean endless and frivolous investigations into the Bush administration.
Pelosi dismisses the notion that Democratic subpoena power would lead to anything frivolous.
"We all have the constitutional responsibility to have checks and balances and oversight. That's what the Congress does," she said.
Pelosi learned politics as a child. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro served in the House from 1939 to 1947 and was mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, for 12 years after that. Her brother, Thomas D'Alesandro III, also served as Baltimore mayor from 1967 to 1971.
Pelosi herself became interested in politics at a young age. At 16, she took her friends to hear John F. Kennedy speak about his book, "Profiles in Courage."
Throughout the late '70s and '80s, Pelosi held several positions in the California Democratic Party, including state chair from 1981 to 1983. She was first elected to the U.S. House in a June 1987 special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. Sala Burton.
She served on the Appropriations Committee, the Banking and Financial Services Committee, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (ethics) and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence before taking on the role of minority whip, then minority leader.
In 2002, her political action committee set a record for doling out money to Democratic candidates.
But despite Pelosi's tenure and accomplishments, a recent poll indicates that many people still don't know what to think of her.
In a CNN poll conducted this week by Opinion Research Corp., 35 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of Pelosi, 24 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion and 42 percent said they weren't sure.
Pelosi is unfazed, and according to Newsweek, already had a grand plan for the House before her speakership seemed so likely.
"You must drain the swamp if you are going to govern for the people," she reportedly said during a speech at a senior center in Portland, Oregon. The Republicans, she added, "have forgotten who they work for. [Democrats] haven't had a bill on the floor for 12 years. We're not here to whine about it; we will do it better. I intend to be very fair. I do not intend to give away the gavel."
Her job won't be easy, as several newly elected moderate and conservative Democrats are likely to force the party to shift toward the center.
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institute, said, "The trick for Pelosi and the other leaders is going to be to find issues that unify the various wings of the party."
A child greets Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, with a hug as the presumed next House speaker arrives at the Capitol on Wednesday.