By Mike Lillis - 09/08/12 07:30 PM EDT
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rep. Nancy Pelosi's murderous pace at the Democratic National Convention this week begs the question whether the California liberal is making a case to remain Democratic leader or positioning herself to cede power on the highest note she can manage.
Pelosi is notoriously tight-lipped about her future, insisting she's focused on this year's elections and not beyond. But the silence has fueled endless speculation about her plans after November, left her party's rising stars dangling in wait to climb up the leadership ladder and caused much of Washington to wonder what a post-Pelosi Democratic Party would look like.
The reasons for the interest are clear enough. Pelosi has led the House Democrats since 2003 – the longest run since Sam Rayburn, the legendary Texas Democrat, who died in office in 1961. In that decade, she's pushed through some of the most significant legislative changes of the last half-century and raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the party – a figure that places her among the most prolific fundraisers on Capitol Hill.
Behind the scenes, she's been meeting with delegates and wooing donors, barnstorming breakfasts and hosting teas – all for the sole purpose (she claims) of winning the 25 seats the Democrats need to take back the House. Her future, she says, she'll decide later.
Ask the lawmakers closest to Pelosi and they insist the gathering in Charlotte won't be her last as Democratic leader.
"Absolutely not – no sign of that," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told The Hill Wednesday. "She's going strong."
But as she celebrates her silver anniversary on Capitol Hill this year, Pelosi is also touting the leaders she sees rising behind her and dropping some hints about the importance of allowing a younger crop of ambitious Democrats take the reins of the House.
On Wednesday, she singled out Van Hollen and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) as likely leaders of the future. And she all but guaranteed that Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.) would rise to chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in the next Congress.
"Certainly we will see a generational shift, and that will be good," Pelosi said Wednesday during an event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
She didn't mention when.
Feeding the speculation that Pelosi has an eye on the door, her daughter Alexandra said last December that her mother felt "an obligation" to the party, but her days on Capitol Hill were numbered.
"She would retire right now, if the donors she has didn't want her to stay so badly," the younger Pelosi told the conservative blog Big Government. "She has very few days left. She's 71, she wants to have a life, she's done."
Alexandra was quick to walk back her comments, and Pelosi's office said they didn't represent the minority leader's thinking. But the episode highlighted the sheer influence Pelosi has had on the party for a decade, and renewed questions about who would fill the void in her absence.
Her prominence at this week's convention – combined with the nationwide fundraising tour that's all but monopolized her August recess – have had a similar effect.
The California Democrat raised $6.8 million at 62 fundraising events last month in 8 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., her office said Thursday. For this cycle, she's participated in roughly 550 fundraisers, raising $65 million for the party, her office added.
"There's nobody who works harder than Nancy Pelosi," Van Hollen said. "She hasn't slowed down for one minute, and she's running around from event to event here to make sure people know what's at stake."
A convention without Pelosi would be an unusual thing, indeed. The Bay Area Democrat was first elected to California's Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the mid-1970s. She chaired the DNC host committee when the convention came to San Francisco in 1984. As the nation's first female Speaker, she chaired the 2008 convention that nominated the man who would become the nation's first black president. And this year, she's played a prominent role in Charlotte, where the Democrats are hoping to launch President Obama to a second term.
Another of Pelosi's daughters, Christine, said this week that the Charlotte gathering is no farewell tour.
"You win, you lose, you come back. But I guarantee you, it's not her last convention," Christine told Roll Call.
Meantime, as the clock ticks down to November's elections, Pelosi is vowing to keep up the frenzied pace that's defined much of the year.
"She is on a very tight schedule," Mame Reiley, head of the DNC Women's Caucus, said Tuesday as Pelosi strode late to the stage.
Ten minutes later, Pelosi was whisked away again, headed for the next event – and a post-election future we can only guess.