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The Next 10 Women to Watch in Politics

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Headline writers across the country declared 2010 "The Year of the Woman" on the day Nikki Haley, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina made history in their primary races last month. But with plenty of primaries, runoffs and general elections still to come, the Year of the Woman is just getting started.

The list below should serve as a guide to the women you're sure to hear about in 2010. They're a combination of rising stars and dragon slayers, mischief makers and even a sacrificial lamb or two. Some are dyed-in-the-wool feminists, while others -- many in fact -- are mounting races to knock off other women in their races to the top. So much for the sisterhood.

1. Kristi Noem -- One look at Kristi Noem's biography makes it tough not to compare her to fellow frontierswoman Sarah Palin. The 38-year-old mother of three is a Republican trying to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, for South Dakota's at-large House seat. When Noem isn't running for office, she breeds Angus cattle and runs a hunting lodge with her husband on her family's ranch. (Can't we just assume she can field-dress a moose?)

But Noem is more than just another mama grizzly. She also is the assistant majority leader in the South Dakota House of Representatives and was a recent addition to the National Republican Campaign Committee's hot list known as the "Young Guns." After beating a crowded GOP primary field, Noem surged past Herseth Sandlin, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, and now holds a 12-point lead in the state, which went overwhelmingly for John McCain in 2008.

"Being at the top of the Young Guns program means that you are ready to take on and even defeat your Democrat opponent, and obviously by what we've seen, it seems that's certainly true for Kristi Noem," said Joanna Burgos, the spokeswoman for the NRCC.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, chairwoman of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, calls Noem the biggest breakout of 2010. "She's no shrinking violet," Dannenfelser said. "They don't breed women like that there. She's got a backbone of steel."

2. Tarryl Clark -- With $2 million in the bank, Clark is the Democratic half of what has already become the most expensive House race in Minnesota history. The other half: Tea Party heroine Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has a whopping $4 million to spend until November when the two women face off.

Clark portrays herself as the common-sense moderate in the race, stressing her experience as a lawyer and the assistant majority leader of the Minnesota state Senate. She also highlights the fact that she's a mother of two who quilts and is active in her church. While previous challengers have been little more than a formality for the formidable Bachmann to beat down, Democrats say Clark is not only up to the task, she could be the incumbent's undoing.

Clark "is also a working mom -- she's been elected several times in the district," said Jen Bluestein Lamb, communications director for Emily's List. " . . . Quite frankly, there are a lot of people who have voted for Clark and Bachmann, and those people are going to get to choose between the two."

3. Ginni Thomas -- She won't be on any ballots this year, but the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is sure to be in the thick of the 2010 election cycle as head of Liberty Central, the conservative think tank she founded in 2009 "to harness the power of citizen voices . . . to preserve liberty." That neopatriotic message has endeared Mrs. Thomas and Liberty Central to Tea Party leaders across the country, and as Ken Vogel of Politico reported this week, the message has also won big contributions from donors, whose identities are secret so far.

But beyond her newly deep pockets and famous name, Ginni Thomas' willingness to take on the Democratic establishment is sure to keep her in the headlines. Unlike her assiduously tight-lipped husband, she speaks loudly and often. In May, she told NewsmaxTV: "Whether it's a soft tyranny or a hard tyranny, it's time to put our foot down. If we don't stop this train that's headed for a cliff right now, we won't have the country we grew up in." Stay tuned.

4. Alex Sink -- Thankless tasks abound for Alex Sink, the chief financial officer for the state of Florida and the leading Democratic candidate for governor. Sink would be the first woman to serve in the top job, if she can make it through the August primary (as expected) and win the November general election. But she may find balancing the state's books in the Great Recession to be easier than knocking off either Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum or GOP health care executive Rick Scott.

Although Democrats call Sink a solid candidate in any year, her experience as a top Bank of America executive isn't exactly selling as well as it used to. And don't forget the surprise entry into the race of Bud Chiles as an independent, which polls show could pull 15 to 19 points away from the other contenders in November.

Sink's race remains a crucial one to watch, though, because putting the swing state back in Democratic control would make Sink a hero in the White House, which wants a friendly audience in Florida for Barack Obama's re-election bid in 2012. The best news for Sink and the White House has to be the fact that even with polls showing her trailing the Republicans, campaign guru Charlie Cook still rates the contest anybody's game.

5. Debbie Wasserman Schultz -- Democratic insiders routinely refer to Wasserman Schultz, a House member from Florida, as "the Next Nancy," as in the next woman with enough ambition, political skill and stomach for fundraising to follow in Nancy Pelosi's footsteps as a future Speaker of the House.

Strategists see more similarities -- her relatively safe seat in a state that Democrats value enormously, her reputation inside the party as a "team player," and a woman with a relentless work ethic and limitless grit. Even most House members had no idea that the congresswoman secretly battled aggressive breast cancer in 2008 as she underwent a battery of tests and seven surgeries, telling her colleagues about her illness only in 2009 when she was declared cancer free.

Although Wasserman Schultz doesn't have a tough race of her own to worry about this year, you're sure to see her on television anyway as Democrats put her out front as a national spokeswoman for the party in 2010 and for years to come.

6. Mary Fallin -- No woman has been a serious contender to run Oklahoma until now; Republican Congresswoman Mary Fallin is poised to become the state's first female governor. "She has a strong legislative record, she's been elected at the state level, and she can raise money," said Leslie Sanchez, a veteran of Capitol Hill, the Republican National Committee and the George W. Bush White House. "She's seen as a rising star in a big way."

Fallin (rhymes with "Palin," who has endorsed her) has spent years working her way up the ladder of state politics, serving as a state legislator, as the state's first female lieutenant governor (for 12 years), and as a member of Congress since 2007 (just the second woman to represent the state). Despite her trailblazing ways, the conservative congresswoman is not only a known quantity in the state, she seems to be right in line with most Oklahomans. She's staunchly pro-life and an ardent defender of gun rights. A Rasmussen poll released this week shows Fallin trouncing her potential opponents by between 9 and 23 points, depending on which Democrat wins the chance to face her in November.

7. Susana Martinez -- This Latina Republican and dynamic district attorney was already on national politicos' radar as she promised to "end corruption" in her bid to fill New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's shoes (a none-too-subtle slap at Richardson's ethical problems in his waning days as governor). But strategists say it was her decision to follow Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's lead and advocate a tough approach to illegal immigration that got Martinez over the finish line in the state's Republican primary. Although she stopped short of endorsing the Brewer bill, she's pushing a reform without amnesty, and has called for her state not to grant drivers licenses or lottery scholarships to illegal immigrants.

Martinez will now face Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, guaranteeing that New Mexico will have its first female governor come January. Until then, look for national GOP leaders to tout Martinez as a perfect example of the party's big tent when it comes to diversity, but tough-on-crime approach to illegal immigration.

8. Jaime Herrera -- The 31-year-old Washington state legislator and former congressional aide is running to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Brian Baird. Despite her relative youth, Herrera has out-raised her male opponents for the Republican nomination and nailed down several high-profile endorsements -- including that of her former boss, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), a top Republican in the House leadership, and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. She also caught the attention of the NRCC in Washington, D.C., and the Women Under 40 PAC, which pegs her as a rising star.

"Jaime is the poster woman for the importance of the pipeline," said Katie Vlietstra, president of the Women Under 40 PAC. "She's a member of the Washington State House and has a fantastic mentor in Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers. She has all of the building blocks in place to ensure her success in November."

9. Reshma Saujani -- This 34-year-old Yale law grad seems to be thriving on Manhattan's East Side by breaking all the rules, including the one about not running against a safe incumbent from your own party. In this case, Saujani is taking on veteran Rep. Carolyn Maloney in New York's usually yawn-inducing Democratic primary this year. As Annie Groer reported in June, Saujani declared recently, "The last time I read the Constitution, it didn't say anything about waiting in line."

Saujani is breaking other rules, too, like the one Democrats have concocted about painting Wall Street as the villain in the American economic meltdown. The former hedge fund trader says the Wall Street reform bill championed by Maloney and other Democrats goes too far in punishing the big banks, and will only hurt the American economy in the end.

Whether or not there's a method to her madness, it's working in her favor for now. She's attracted attention and plenty of money from financial titans in New York City, and even a vote of confidence from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's lady friend, Diana Taylor. She also landed herself on the front page of Thursday's Washington Post, quite a feat for the daughter of Indian immigrants who didn't, in her words, wait in line.

10. Terri Sewell -- Sewell's short-term political future will be decided next Tuesday, when Alabama holds a Democratic runoff for the House seat of retiring Rep. Artur Davis. But no matter what happens, Sewell has already built a record of success that would have most high achievers calling it a day.

The Harvard-trained lawyer was the first black valedictorian at her high school in historic Selma, Ala. From there Sewell went on to Princeton, where she was named one of Glamour Magazine's College Women of the Year, then Harvard Law School and Oxford University in England. She worked as a corporate lawyer in both New York and Alabama, where she also worked pro-bono cases for school districts looking to raise money.

Since 2008 was the year for breakout African-American stars like Barack Obama and Mayor Corey Booker of Newark, N.J., Sewell's backers want to see her join the new guard in 2010 as well.

Follow Patricia Murphy on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy

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