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ELLEN GOODMAN

In today's politics, nice gals finish last

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 to Scarborough Country. 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, 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 next week, she will become the first woman speaker of the House, two heartbeats away from the presidency.

So this Italian-Catholic mother of five is relaxed about her transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West Coast. Racing through the last campaign week, 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 (1) toughest, (2) ugliest, (3) 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 women politicians walked a fine line between being tough enough and being a b-word? See Geraldine Ferraro circa 1984. Remember when men running against them had to be wary of looking abusive? See Rick Lazio waving papers in Hillary Clinton's face like an angry husband circa 2000.

Women candidates still get judged more on their hair and their heirs. There are catty cable hosts saying that Pelosi had a face lift (wrong!). But in a campaign when the 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 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 mommy war for a House seat, Democrat Patty Wetterling, whose own son had been abducted and never found, was one of the first to use the Mark Foley page scandal against Republican Michele Bachmann. Now Bachmann is accusing 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. In Wyoming there was a "moment" when Republican congressional candidate Barbara Cubin said that if her libertarian opponent wasn't in a wheelchair, she'd slap his face.

Meanwhile in the Massachusetts governor's race, Republican Kerry Healey seemed like the Talbots catalog candidate for governor before she launched Willie Horton-esque attacks on Deval Patrick. After the ads boomeranged, she was campaigning with her mom, extolling the virtues of "Tide To Go" spot cleaner.

Surely, there is an upbeat view on this newfound gender equality. Political scientist Kathleen Dolan says women 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.

Speaker-maybe-to-be 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." But if fewer women are still entering politics than, say, law or medicine, is it because they don't think it's worth "it"?

When Pelosi 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." Soon 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's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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