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Equality in negativity for female candidates

The Baltimore Sun

BOSTON -- By now you may think that "San Francisco Liberal" is her last name. "Nancy Pelosi San Francisco Liberal" is being used to frighten voters everywhere from Indiana to Georgia. She's caricatured as "Michael Moore," "a specter hanging like a cloud over America," and a woman waiting to rule the country with "illegal immigrants" and a "radical homosexual agenda."

But if being demonized is the price for power, Ms. Pelosi is willing to pay it. The Democratic leader may not be renowned for delivering the party message, but she's great at keeping the House Democrats on message. And if they win a majority tomorrow, she will become the first female speaker of the House, two heartbeats away from the presidency.

So this Baltimore native, Italian-Catholic mother of five is relaxed about her transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West Coast. Racing through the last campaign week, Ms. Pelosi says that if she's the one "the White House fears most, I take that as a badge of honor." As for the woman as a target? "The minute you go into this arena, especially at this altitude, you have to prove you can breathe the air."

Even if the air is polluted.

This year, 134 women are running for Congress, including 18 in the 47 hottest races. There's a good chance that women will increase their numbers in Congress by 10 or more. At the same time, this is one of the toughest, ugliest, most competitive races in modern history.

So let us put aside the charming idea that women would clean the political house. This may be the year women won a dubious equality. The equal right to attack. The equal right to be attacked.

Remember when female politicians walked a fine line between being "tough enough" and being a "B-word"? See Geraldine A. Ferraro circa 1984. Remember when men running against them had to be wary of looking abusive? See Rick Lazio waving papers in Hillary Rodham Clinton's face circa 2000. Female candidates still get judged more on their hair and their heirs. But in a campaign where negative is the norm, it's less about gender than strategy.

In 11 races where women are running against women, there's not a lot of sisterhood. In New Mexico, Republican Rep. Heather Wilson is ad-attacked as "lying for George Bush" and Democrat Patricia Madrid is ad-trashed as being soft on child predators. In a Minnesota race for a House seat, Democrat Patty Wetterling, whose son was abducted and never found, was one of the first to use the Mark Foley page scandal against an opponent. Now Michele Bachmann is accusing Ms. Wetterling of palling around with the Taliban crowd.

In races between men and women, the only time going negative becomes a negative is when it's truly beyond the pale. Even then, it's less about gender than civility.

When Peter Roskam attacked Tammy Duckworth as a "cut and run Democrat," you could hear the Illinois audience gasp. Democrat Duckworth lost two legs in the Iraq war.

Surely, there is an upbeat view on this newfound gender equality. Political scientist Kathleen Dolan says female candidates "are treated more as politicians and less as women. Women are able to step up and act as positively or negatively as the situation needs. To me, it signals that women are achieving full status as candidates." But the candidates' full status is sinking.

Ms. Pelosi says, convincingly, "You have to be willing to throw a punch as well as take one. That's the way it is. When you win, you can show people it's worth it."

When she first became a party leader, she remembers feeling a part of 200 years of women's political history. At a White House meeting, she thought, "At least we have a seat at the table." This week she may make history again.

But who thought that when we got a seat at the table, we'd find ourselves in the middle of a food fight?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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