WASHINGTON — The big political bull's-eye on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's back isn't keeping her from campaigning for Democratic candidates in several states, even if she avoids some of the most conservative regions.
Pelosi will attend fundraisers this month in Houston and Dallas, plus make a joint appearance Aug. 16 with President Barack Obama in Los Angeles. She recently headlined a fundraiser in Santa Fe for New Mexico's three House Democrats, two of whom face tough Republican challengers who criticize their ties to the speaker.
That Aug. 3 event underscored the double-edged nature of Pelosi visits.
No Democrat except Obama raises more money, say party officials, who credit Pelosi with pulling in $189 million since 2003. But she also is the GOP's favorite target this year, eclipsing even the president in the guilt-by-association tactic that Republicans are using in dozens of races.
As a result, some Democrats like to collect their money with a minimum of public interaction with the liberal from San Francisco. At the Santa Fe event, quietly held in a private home, "Democrats weren't saying much about the visit," the Albuquerque Journal reported.
House speakers are powerful figures in Washington. But most could stroll streets outside their district without being recognized. (Think Dennis Hastert, Tom Foley, Jim Wright.)
That's not true of Pelosi. She has attracted attention as the first woman to hold the post and as a fierce tactician who cajoles, charms and strong-arms colleagues to enact difficult bills such as this year's health care overhaul.
Politicians say she has extraordinarily high name recognition, and many consider her divisive.
Pelosi "is the most disliked, distrusted person in American politics," Republican strategist Chris LaCivita says, a claim hotly disputed by her admirers. Pelosi's hard-driving efforts to pass health care and other bills contribute to her reputation, LaCivita said, but what is more important, she is the personification of a deeply unpopular Congress.
A new poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that 21 percent of Americans approve of Congress while 72 percent disapprove. Five times more people have "very negative" feelings about Pelosi than "very positive" feelings, but one-third of those polled were neutral or had no opinion about her.
Three days after Pelosi's Santa Fe visit, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele wore a red hat saying "Fire Pelosi."
Nonetheless, the speaker will attend more than 35 fundraising and message events during the August recess, her office said. They include several events in her district and other California communities. But some are in less-friendly settings, including Texas, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Louisville, Ky., and Portland, Ore.
Candidates who embrace Pelosi can expect some whacks. Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who attended the speaker's Santa Fe event, faces Republican Jon Barela. Barela recently accused Heinrich of supporting "runaway spending and debt at every turn," adding, "Rubber-stamping Nancy Pelosi's far-left agenda hasn't worked."
Republicans make similar claims in other states.
Robert Hurt, trying to oust Rep. Tom Perriello in a central Virginia contest, calls his opponent the "poster child for Nancy Pelosi's policies."
Opponents of Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-Md., display bumper stickers saying "Kratovil (equals) Pelosi."
In Alabama, GOP challenger Martha Roby says Democratic Rep. Bobby Bright "might be a fine person, but he supported Mrs. Pelosi."
If elected, Roby says, one of her first acts will be to vote to remove Pelosi as speaker. It's a surefire applause line at Republican gatherings.
Democratic spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said she doesn't think the anti-Pelosi strategy will work. Similar efforts failed in 2006 and 2008, she said, because voters care mainly about issues in their district and the choice between two candidates on their ballot.
Some Democrats say the attacks on Pelosi have a whiff of sexism, and female voters may push back if Republicans go too far.
Democratic leaders with lower profiles and more moderate records can go into districts that Pelosi will avoid. For instance, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is spending August campaigning for candidates in Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas and Washington state.
On the Republican side, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio will campaign for more than 30 candidates in 17 states, his staff said. He will deliver an economic speech to the City Club in Cleveland on Aug. 24.
Although Boehner probably will become House speaker if Republicans seize the majority this fall, he is far less recognizable nationally than Pelosi. That's why Republicans such as LaCivita think Boehner can travel the country with less baggage.
To millions of voters, LaCivita said, Pelosi "is the representative of Congress and, frankly, everything that is wrong with Congress."
Democrats hope Pelosi can keep raking in the money while voters decide House races at the local level.