House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Monday that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., hasn't been treated differently because she's the only woman in the presidential race, but added that her campaign appears to have been trying to exploit that perception in the wake of last week's Democratic debate.
Pelosi, the nation's first female House speaker, told ABCNEWS.com in an interview that she didn't agree with observers who thought Clinton was drawing particular heat because she's a woman.
"[Sen. Clinton] said it best: They're 'piling on' -- or whatever the words were -- 'because I'm the front-runner.' That's why they're piling on," said Pelosi. "If she was in third place, they wouldn't say, 'Let's go attack a woman.'"
But in distributing a Web video splicing together her opponents' attacks her campaign appears to be exploiting perceptions of Clinton facing down a field of aggressive male challengers, Pelosi said.
"I think the campaign is trying to take advantage of another -- probably people who didn't even watch the debate, to say, 'Oh, they were really rude,' or something like that, and that has some salience," said Pelosi, who has said she does not plan to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary. "You know, every vote counts."
Last Tuesday's debate in Philadelphia has set off a wide debate over the role of gender in the presidential race.
Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman ever to appear on a major-party presidential ticket, told The New York Times in a story published Monday that Clinton's opponents were "sexist" in their attacks.
"John Edwards, specifically, as well as the press, would never attack Barack Obama for two hours the way they attacked her," said Ferraro, who was Walter Mondale's running mate in the 1984 presidential election.
In her first major campaign event after the debate, Clinton traveled to her alma mater, Wellesley College, and said, "In so many ways, this all-women's college prepared me to compete in the all-boys club of presidential politics."
She said Friday, "I don't think they're piling on because I'm a woman. I think they're piling on because I'm winning."
Pelosi's comments came as she seeks to resuscitate perceptions of the Democratic Congress, amid widespread dissatisfaction with Democrats' inability to bring an end to the Iraq War.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found approval ratings for congressional leadership down 18 points since the spring, with just 36 percent of respondents saying they approve of the way Democrats in Congress are doing their job.
Pelosi said she is mindful of those numbers, and even said that she agrees that Congress hasn't met its promises, since Democrats have failed to end the war.
She said she shares the public's frustration with the ongoing war, and said she will press the House of Representatives to propose new bills to remove troops from Iraq, even if they have little chance of passing the Senate.
"We cannot confine the aspirations of the American people on this war to what is legislatively possible in the Senate," Pelosi said. "So I think you'll see the House sending things over there in the hope that they pass, but not waiting for a signal that something could go."