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Kansas' Democrat Gov. Sebelius garners national attention in midst of GOP state

Monday, January 29, 2007

TOPEKA, Kan. -- Most of the Kansans who've made a mark on national politics have been Republicans, like Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole. Another, Sen. Sam Brownback, is running for president.

But now a Kansas Democrat, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, is generating some buzz with her 58 percent re-election margin, glowing write-ups in national magazines and political chatter about her place on short lists for Cabinet posts should Democrats recapture the White House next year.

Sebelius, who's made her fortune in Kansas politics by winning over moderate Republicans, has even popped up in speculation about potential vice presidential nominees. And this year, she's chairwoman of the Democratic Governors' Association.

"It's hard to imagine that her name's not going to appear on everybody's list," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster in Washington. "You've got to say Kathleen Sebelius is in demand as a role model, as a political figure, as a governor."

The 58-year-old governor is a self-described "aging rocker" who squeezed a ride in an Indy race car and a Rolling Stones concert into the same day last year.

Her wit occasionally gets her into trouble, as during a 2002 gubernatorial debate when she said driving roads in neighboring Missouri was "much more terrifying to me than the attacks on the World Trade Center."

Her father, John Gilligan, a Democrat, was governor of Ohio in 1971-75, making them the only father-daughter governors in U.S. history. Her husband, Gary, a federal magistrate, was a son of the late Rep. Keith Sebelius, a western Kansas Republican.

After eight years in the Kansas House and two terms as insurance commissioner, she ran for governor in 2002, winning over moderate Republicans by portraying herself as pro-business and promising to make government more efficient.

She's continued the political mix this year, proposing that legislators draft a plan for eventually bringing universal health care coverage to Kansas while seeking tax cuts for businesses. She's also been a visible supporter of the military, going to Iraq in 2005 to visit National Guard troops.

During her first term, the state weathered its most severe fiscal crisis since the Great Depression and was forced by its highest court to dramatically increase spending on public schools. With the economy improving, both tasks were accomplished without a general tax increase -- though Republicans note Sebelius proposed a swiftly rejected tax package for schools in 2004.

That year, Time named Sebelius one of four "rising stars from the heartland," and a year later it touted her as among the nation's five best governors. Newsweek identified Sebelius as "one to watch" this year.

Much of the attention focuses on her ability to draw moderate Republicans, a necessity for statewide office in Kansas. Only 27 percent of the state's 1.6 million voters are registered as Democrats, compared to 46 percent as Republicans, giving the GOP a 322,000-person advantage. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since 1964.

Kansas has long been a springboard for Republicans, most notably Eisenhower, whose presidential library is in Abilene, about 160 miles west of Kansas City, Mo. Sen. Charles Curtis served as vice president in 1929-33. Gov. Alf Landon was the GOP nominee for president in 1936. Dole was Senate majority leader before his failed presidential bid in 1996.

Brownback is considered a long shot for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, but he's got support from the religious right and conservative groups.

Some Republicans suggested Sebelius wouldn't serve out a second term as governor because she'd be tapped for a presidential ticket, and many believe she's eyeing a run in 2010 for the Senate seat now held by Brownback, who has said he won't seek re-election.

Sebelius dismisses such ideas, saying she likes her current job.

However, some Kansans wouldn't mind seeing her on the Democratic ticket next year.

"Anything's possible," said Rachel Camp, director of a church day care center in Topeka. "She shows a lot of good qualities that would be assets to our government. I'd probably vote for her."


On the Net:

Governor's office: http://www.ksgovernor.org/


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