In Baltimore's Little Italy, where Nancy Pelosi began the political education that propelled her to the peak of power in Washington, there was one person more feared and better-organized than her legendary father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr.
That was her mother, Annunciata, a statuesque woman also known as Nancy, who juggled six children with serving as precinct captain, strategist and all-around enforcer in her husband's storied Democratic machine. And people knew not to tangle with her.
"Cross [my mother]? You're dead in the water. She'd get you," said Pelosi's brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. "With my mother, there was no forgiving."
It's a trait that sounds familiar to Pelosi's colleagues on Capitol Hill, where she climbed to the top echelons by blending savvy, determination and impeccable organization with prolific fundraising - and a hefty dose of her mother's take-no-prisoners approach.
Pelosi's "toughness comes from her," said D'Alesandro, who served four years as mayor of Baltimore, following in the footsteps of his father, a former mayor and congressman who came to be known as Tommy the Elder.
If Pelosi, 66, becomes the first female speaker of the House - a near certainty should her party succeed at what analysts call its best chance in years to take control - it would be due in large measure to her unflinching leadership style, which prizes partisanship and personal loyalty, and punishes public dissonance and deviations from the party line.
It will also put Pelosi to a fresh test: whether she can shift from staging bitter confrontations with Republicans - and serving as one of their most tantalizing targets for attack and ridicule - to a speaker who can lead.
She seems palpably energized by the prospect, and makes no apologies for how she got here.
"This is not for the faint of heart. ... This is very tough," Pelosi said in an interview. "I'm conditioned for it. I'm battle-tested."
Bellicose words might seem incongruous coming from a woman who says she defines herself as an Italian-American, Roman Catholic mother and grandmother. But the grown-up version of the impeccably groomed girl known around the streets of Baltimore as "Little Nancy" is accustomed to wielding power with more than a touch of gender-consciousness.
"Maybe it takes a woman to clean the House," she likes to say as she travels the country raising money for Democratic candidates, snacking on chocolates and working 15-hour days.
On her way into a ladies brunch in Tampa, Fla., Pelosi catches sight of a woman holding a book open to a photo of her handing the speaker's gavel to Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
"Next time, it will be reversed!" Pelosi says, pumping a manicured fist.
She tells a room full of women there that a new crop of female elected officials will have a "wholesome effect" on Washington and promises that when the speaker's gavel is placed in her hand, she'll take it on behalf of the nation's children.
Statements like those - from a petite woman in expensively cut suits, chic shoes and a sleek hairdo - may make Pelosi appear softer and more approachable than her male predecessors, but she has her mother's grit.
She is scathing on President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. "These people are oblivious," she says, as she travels by SUV to a fundraiser on Tampa's posh Davis Island. She has called Bush "incompetent."
As for Republicans who deride her as a weak-on-defense San Francisco liberal: "I don't care what they say about me," she says, her mouth twisting into a sneer, "They're pathetic."
Bush and his allies have stepped up the swipes as polls showed Republican fortunes darkening. Republican talking points, distributed to party officials across the country, paint her as a shrill partisan who is oblivious to security threats, itching to raise taxes, and ready to foist an aggressive pro-gay rights agenda on the country.
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 Republican, calls the prospect of a Pelosi speakership "just plain scary." Karl Rove, Bush's top campaign hand, recently said a Democratic victory on Election Day would elevate to speaker "a congresswoman who said, quote, 'I don't really consider ourselves at war,' end quote."
"Nancy is not in sync with the vast majority of the American people," Cheney told conservative commentator Sean Hannity.
There's little evidence, however, that she inspires much passion, one way or the other, among voters. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that about three-fifths either don't know who she is or have "neutral" feelings about her.
Democrats, even Pelosi's detractors, say she has been an effective leader whose tactics have helped them capitalize on Bush's problems and Republicans' missteps.
Her demand that Democrats vote the party line against Bush's agenda helped Pelosi cajole and threaten her notoriously fractious caucus to its most unified voting record ever, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Her insistence that Democrats stick to a careful script on major policy issues left Bush grasping to find proposals to criticize. She prevented them from offering alternatives to Bush's ill-fated Social Security plan and personally tapped hawkish Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania to issue the first public call for a radical change of course in Iraq.
Pelosi is also unforgiving in her treatment of her opponents, say both allies and critics - shutting out those who sought to undermine or challenge her.
"Early on, she took care of people that weren't for her," said Murtha, a mentor and close confidant. "She listened to them, realizing that we want everyone inside this tent. But she shut a couple people out pretty strongly - I mean, just cut them out completely. I've heard her say to people, 'Look, if you're not with me, I'm not with you.' People that were against her found out that she was tough."
Pelosi brushes off the internal spats.
"That's not an issue," she said.
She says she would be able to put partisan bitterness behind her, too. Democrats would institute civility and bipartisanship in the House, while redeploying troops from Iraq, raising the minimum wage, and enacting a new energy plan, she pledges.
As for payback for Republicans and Bush: "We don't have time for that. This isn't about retribution," she said. "Winning will be our best statement about any concerns about the past."
Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, a centrist who got on her wrong side by backing a rival in a leadership race, said she would have to change her ways to succeed as speaker.
Pelosi will "have to be more open and more inclusive and not just listen to the 'Nancy people,'" Smith said. "If she tries to sort of build that tight ring around her of just the people who have been most loyal to her and freeze out all the others, she's going to have a very hard time."
Pelosi counters that she listens to all Democratic voices in the House, pointing to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, her No. 2 as whip, and Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina as examples of moderates in her orbit.
Hoyer, who battled Pelosi unsuccessfully in a cutthroat race for whip in 2001, called her a "formidable foe." Party insiders say she has gone to elaborate lengths ever since to trample him. She has rebuked Hoyer for backing Republican-written measures, including a bankruptcy bill that passed last year, and worked to shut his allies out of committee assignments and leadership posts.
In the spring, when Murtha let it be known he was exploring a run for majority leader, a post that Hoyer would be in line for if Democrats take the House, Pelosi stayed silent for days before calling for unity until after the election. The delay was read by many as a sign Pelosi had orchestrated the challenge to undermine Hoyer.
But despite persistent rumors of behind-the-scenes feuding between the two, Hoyer - who first met Pelosi when they were young interns in the office of Sen. Daniel B. Brewster of Maryland - denied that the two are at odds and said she has reached out to Democrats of all points of view.
"You don't create the kind of consensus we have without communicating with a broad spectrum of people," Hoyer said. Pelosi "is the hardest-working leader that I have seen."
Long considered one of her party's strongest fundraisers, she has helped raise $100 million over the past four years, behind only Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to her staff.
Former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, who also lost a bitter leadership race to Pelosi, credited her with holding Democrats together during a critical period.
Echoing a common concern within the party, he said she "hasn't quite mastered television yet." But her toughest challenge, he said, would be persuading Democrats to resist the urge to punish Republicans.
Pelosi learned the art of politics from an early age.
At 13, she worked the desk in the front room of the family home, where neighbors sought her father's help for problems large and small - such as getting a job and springing a loved one from jail.
From her father, she inherited a keen political sense. She "idolized" him, D'Alesandro said.
But it was her mother who "ruled with an iron fist" and saw to it - over Tommy the Elder's objections - that Nancy be allowed to leave Baltimore to attend Trinity College in Washington, D.C.
There, she would meet her future husband, Paul Pelosi, a student at Georgetown. They settled in San Francisco, where he built a business as an investor.
"She's a disciplinarian. She ran that household like a tight ship," said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California, a friend from those days who remembers Pelosi driving her five bouncing kids in her station wagon, multitasking all the way. "She was on top of everything."
As her husband's business boomed, Pelosi was increasingly involved in party politics. She waited until the youngest of her children was ready to head to college before she sought elected office, running in a 1987 special election to replace a dying congresswoman.
In Congress, she has built a solidly liberal voting record, backing abortion rights and needle-exchange programs to combat HIV/AIDS, and opposing many free-trade measures.
Thanks to her husband's investment fortune, Pelosi, who lives in San Francisco's wealthy Pacific Heights section, is the ninth-richest House member, with a net worth as high as $55 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Pelosi says she never intended to run for leadership but got sick of sitting on the sidelines watching Democrats lose.
"I know how to win. I know how to make a plan, and I just decided, well I'm tired of just supporting other ideas. I want my own ideas to be out there," Pelosi said.
Those who know her best call her rise meticulously calculated.
"Nancy has not fallen into this. She has helped to create it," Eshoo said. "She knows how to conduct a fight, but she's never unladylike. Is she strong? Is she tough? Yes. Is she brittle? No."
"The Nancy Pelosi that we know now she molded, she constructed," D'Alesandro said.
Both parents could see that as they stood on the House floor nearly 20 years ago, watching Pelosi being sworn in for her first term. Her father's eyes misted over a bit.
But her mother just smiled, D'Alesandro said, "And the smile said, 'This is the way it should be.'"