Pelosi victory predicted in House race
Ford enters leadership race; Frost drops out
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi, an outspoken liberal from California, emerged Friday as the front-runner in the race to lead Democrats in the House after her chief rival for the post dropped out and threw his support behind her.
Several Democrats said Pelosi had the race wrapped up after Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, announced his withdrawal from the contest to succeed Richard Gephardt as House minority leader.
"It is clear to me that Nancy Pelosi has the votes of a majority of the caucus," Frost, 60, said in a letter to Democratic colleagues. "In light of this fact, today I am releasing all of my commitments."
But Pelosi, 62, was not unchallenged.
Earlier Friday, Rep. Harold Ford, 32, of Tennessee threw his hat in the ring. At a news conference, he said he would not withdraw from the race, saying Pelosi was part of the old guard and he represented "the only true change."(Bios of key players)
"Give my candidacy a chance," Ford said. The party vote is scheduled for Thursday.
Democrats have been engaged in soul-searching since their drubbing at the polls Tuesday when Republicans built on their majority in the House and took control of the Senate.
Some Democrats believe their party lost touch with its base and failed to convincingly challenge the administration on several issues, such as Iraq and tax cuts. Others believe the party has to do a better job of reaching out to moderate voters and articulating more centrist positions.
Frost and others made it clear that they thought Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, had the race sewn up. If she does indeed win, Pelosi would become the highest-ranking female leader in House history. She currently serve as minority whip, the No. 2 Democratic leadership post in the House.
"I think Nancy Pelosi will be elected," Gephardt told CNN. "Nancy Pelosi is a unification force in our caucus. She is respected by the members of our caucus."
White House officials described Pelosi as a liberal who is out of touch with America's mainstream, and some Republicans said Pelosi's elevation could help the GOP portray Democrats as drifting away from the center.
Pelosi, a 15-year House veteran, rejected the criticism.
"I do think that people elected me to be a leader and not an advocate for my own point of view," she told CNN, predicting her own victory. "Everyone in the party has their own place in the spectrum."
But Ford said Pelosi did not represent the kind of change Democrats needed.
"Nancy, as much as I respect her and as much as I find her endearing, I just believe that she would offer the same kind of leadership that we've been used to," he said. "The same old ways of the past, which have proven not to work."
The leadership battle began after Gephardt announced his announced his decision to step aside. In a Thursday letter, Gephardt said Democrats need someone to put "our party back in the majority."
Gephardt, 61, whose decision also allows him to clear the way for a possible 2004 presidential bid, has led Democrats in the House of Representatives for the past eight years.
Under his leadership, Democrats have been unable to make up the losses they sustained in the 1994 midterm elections when Republican took control of the chamber.
In a letter to his Democratic colleagues, Gephardt said he will keep the House seat from Missouri he has held since 1977.
Gephardt has sought the White House before, losing the 1988 Democratic nomination to Michael Dukakis. He is one of several congressional Democrats said to be considering presidential bids in two years from now.
Gephardt told CNN he had not made a decision about a presidential campaign.
"I'm stepping back," he said. "I'm going to look at all the possibilities, opportunities to continue to try to provide good public service and a good agenda for this country."
-- CNN Correspondents Candy Crowley, Kate Snow, John King and Producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.