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."
"It's so horrible, this war, it's a grotesque mistake. They [voters] have to see us making the fight," she added.
Pelosi said she wished she had convinced the Senate to repass troop withdrawal legislation earlier this year, even after President Bush vetoed the measure. Such a move would have heightened pressure on wavering Republicans, she said.
"The irony of it is the president paid a really big price for vetoing that bill, and instead of sending it back to him again, people [in the Senate] said, well, he vetoed it, if we send it back it looks like we're not being constructive," Pelosi said. "The Republicans were the obstruction. They knew that if that bill went on the president's desk, it was deadly for them -- the Republicans in Congress."
On Iran, Pelosi said she does not believe that the Bush administration is preparing military action to stop the development of nuclear weapons.
"The downside of it so outweighs any upside," she said. "Now that doesn't mean that there aren't people who are advocating for it. I don't think the president is at that place."
She said she would continue to make clear her belief that the president does not have the authority to invade Iran based on resolutions authorizing force in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But she said she is not sure that House members would support a preemptive resolution stating that fact, given the nation's interest in using all the diplomatic and economic levers at its disposal to dissuade the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon.
"I don't think the people want a use-of-force taken off the table in that way, but that doesn't mean that they would support the use of force unless there's a real argument for it," she said.
Aside from the House's fresh attempts to shape the direction of the war, Pelosi said she is planning a full legislative agenda for the next year, in the window before the elections dominate all politics.
She said she is confident the House can pass a major energy bill, in addition to higher-education reforms, new protections for consumer-product safety and a permanent fix to the Alternative Minimum Tax, a parallel tax structure that is increasingly ensnaring middle-class taxpayers.
"Although the war is, you know, the 'total eclipse of the war,' it is still necessary for us to do the job we went there to do," Pelosi said.