The day Nancy Plosi made history, the day Democrats made her their leader in the House of Representatives, she stepped from the Cannon Caucus Room flashing a high-beam smile that nearly outshone the television floodlights. Congressional leadership elections are normally staid affairs, perfunctory even, but on this November day the atmosphere was buoyant, almost giddy. Dressed in candy-apple red, surrounded mostly by men in black and gray, Pelosi cut through the marbled solemnity like a firecracker ringing in a churchyard.

Democrats were clearly pleased, and not just because they had elevated the California lawmaker to House minority leader, the highest position a woman has ever held in Congress. After a disappointing 2002 election, Pelosi promised that House leaders--and, by extension, the rest of the party--would be tougher in 2004. "Where we can find our common ground, we shall seek it," Pelosi told the media scrum outside the cavernous Caucus Room. "Where we cannot find that common ground, we must stand our ground."

For their part, Republicans were equally thrilled, eager to attack Pelosi as a loopy San Francisco liberal and exploit her city's reputation as the odd-sock drawer of America. Within days, her face--garish and twisted--showed up in an attack ad slamming the Democrat in a Louisiana House race. (He won anyway.) She surfaced as Miss America, complete with tiara, in a spoof on Rush Limbaugh's Web site. "Her views are highly out of step with most of the country," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for congressional Republicans--and many in Pelosi's own party agreed.

But those caricatures, facile as they are, overlook perhaps the chief reason for Nancy Pelosi's success. Long before she came to San Francisco, before she had even grown up, she was schooled in the back-scratching politics of Baltimore, trained literally at the knee of a master--her father--who taught that elections are about taking care of people and practicality is more important than ideology.

"Does she have the ability to go beyond representing the left wing of her party? The answer is clearly yes," says Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Florida Republican who has worked closely with Pelosi on sensitive assignments, including the House Ethics Committee and, most recently, a probe into the Sept. 11 attacks. "While it's true she does represent the left wing of the other party, it's equally true that if you say that's all she's going to do, you would be underestimating her badly."

At age 62, Nancy Pelosi is living proof that looks can deceive. If she has "a negative in her political career, it's that she's too attractive," says Agar Jaicks, a Democratic activist who has known Pelosi for close to 30 years. Starting as a volunteer, political hostess and party fund-raiser (she didn't run for office until she was 47), Pelosi has been routinely dismissed, first as a dilettante and then, in Congress, as a legislative lightweight. Her wide brown eyes suggest a perpetual state of wonderment, and, speaking in public, she often falls back on the strained superlatives and canned platitudes that make her sound plastic and superficial.

Her maiden appearance on the Sunday talk-show circuit was so rote that many Democrats cringed. "Does that grin ever go away?" sniped one senior House aide. But there is a cunning that lies just below the artfully arranged surface. San Francisco is a tough political town, far from the liberal monolith that outsiders perceive. It is home to a boisterous, personal and often brutal form of hand-to-hand politicking, which makes it unusual in California and may help explain why so many of the state's political leaders--from Hiram Johnson to Phillip Burton to Dianne Feinstein and, now, Pelosi--have emerged from its roiling cauldron.

"We're a tiny city, 47 square miles, but we're a city of intense national, international and local interests that converge and compete," says David Lee, an activist in San Francisco's large Asian American community. "Every conceivable issue--race, sexual orientation, Taiwan versus mainland China, even Palestinians versus Jews--all get played out here. To get through that and to build a consensus among so many competing interests really takes an unusual amount of talent. And that's why if you can make it politically in San Francisco, you can make it practically anywhere."

But San Francisco is just a part of Pelosi's pedigree, and not the most important. She was born and bred in Baltimore, the daughter of a New Deal congressman and revered mayor who ran a political machine from his brick row house and made his five sons and daughter--"Little Nancy"--part of its operation.

"Our whole lives were politics," Pelosi told an interviewer during her first race for Congress, a special election she squeaked through in 1987. "If you entered the house, it was always campaign time, and if you went into the living room, it was always constituent time."

Politics was not about philosophy or abstractions. It was about jobs, about having your garbage picked up, a fallen tree cleared or getting your child a scholarship and perhaps a ticket to a better life. It was also about pragmatism, about cutting deals and forming alliances, among the Italians, the Irish, the Jews and the Poles, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block.

"It was traditional grass-roots politics," says Peter Marudas, who spent decades in the Maryland trenches. "She didn't go off to college like a lot of us and get involved in politics around some particular issue. She was weaned on service to people."

The skills she learned--how to organize a campaign from the street level up, how to count votes, how to build relationships, forge coalitions and cash in favors--would serve Pelosi brilliantly as she climbed the Democratic Party ladder, inside Congress and out.

Her older brother Tommy eventually followed their father into the mayor's office, serving a single term in the late 1960s. But for Pelosi, Congress was a second career after working 20-odd years as a full-time mom (five children in six years) and Democratic Party volunteer.

Growing up, Pelosi says, she had no idea what she wanted to do. She married her college sweetheart, followed him to San Francisco and while her kids were in class, did her grocery shopping and service to the Democratic Party. "I have never not participated in a campaign," she said during her first run for Congress, "no matter how little my babies were, if I was wheeling them in a carriage or carrying them in my stomach."

Her own election was almost happenstance, the result of a hospital-bed endorsement from a dying incumbent. Her rise to a leadership role in Congress was more calculated, something she plotted and pursued for years. Her success will boil down to one thing: Can Democrats regain control of the House after more than eight years in the minority?

There are good reasons to doubt it, starting with the political lines drawn after the last census, which seem to favor Republicans for the rest of the decade. She is surrounded in the Democratic leadership by several potential foes, including an old Maryland chum she leapfrogged in a bitter contest that left wounds still red and raw. Going into the 2004 elections, she faces a president of surpassing popularity and a White House filled with canny campaign strategists.

But those who know Pelosi say if she comes up short, it won't be for lack of hard work or toughness or political smarts. She may have followed an unconventional route to get to where she is today, but looking back, says Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a Silicon Valley Democrat and one of Pelosi's closest friends in Congress, "Nancy's life was a dress rehearsal for what she's doing now."

Baltimore is a drab city of browns and grays, a world away from the pastel prettiness of San Francisco. In winter, in particular, it has the forlorn feeling of a place whose better days have long passed.