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Dems tap Kansas governor for State of the Union response

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  • Kathleen Sebelius to deliver the Dems response to State of the Union
  • Time Magazine short-listed her as one of the nation's five best governors
  • Sebelius governs state with twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats
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By Rebecca Sinderbrand
CNN associate political editor
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will deliver the Democratic response to President Bush's final State of the Union address - a marquee assignment for a woman who leads a state with fewer than 2 million voters.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius speaks at a news conference in June 2007 in Washington.

Sebelius became the 44th governor of the state of Kansas in 2003. She made her first run for governor on a pledge to make the state more business-friendly and increase government efficiency.

The Kansas governor has a political pedigree: Her father, John Gilligan, was a Democratic governor of Ohio in the '70s. But the governor has paid her political dues, with stints as a Kansas state representative and state insurance commissioner.

Since she moved into the governor's mansion, Newsweek has identified Sebelius as "one to watch." Time named her one of four "rising stars from the heartland," and short-listed her as one of the nation's five best governors.

"Mark my words, Sebelius will be on everyone's VP short list in 2008," Democratic blogger Markos Moulitsas said on his Daily Kos Web site, as he applauded her 2006 success in wooing disaffected Kansas Republicans.

Most of the national political figures to come out of Kansas have been Republicans, like President Dwight Eisenhower and former Sen. Bob Dole. But entering her sixth year as governor, Sebelius seems to be everyone's favorite pick to join that select group.

The down-to-earth governor has certified red state appeal with a blue state edge: She loves NASCAR and college sports, running and the Rolling Stones. And the 58-year-old has an offbeat sense of humor. (Sometimes, perhaps, a bit too offbeat for some voters -- like the time she said during an election-year debate that Missouri roads scared her more than the World Trade Center attacks.)

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But the big draw for national Democrats is her skill at appealing to moderate GOP voters -- the only way a Democrat can win major office in Kansas. Sebelius has won two gubernatorial elections in a state with roughly twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats. Bush carried the state by at least 20 points in each of his presidential runs and no Democratic presidential contender has won there since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

When Sebelius was elected governor, Kansas faced a judicial order to increase school spending in the midst of its worst budget crisis since the 1930s. Under Sebelius' leadership, the Kansas economy has rebounded, resulting in low unemployment and the creation of thousands of jobs, according to a Kansas government Web site.

Her first term was considered so successful that during her re-election run, a few Republicans tried to use it against her -- predicting she'd probably be tapped for a White House run before she finished a second term.

So far, Sebelius has downplayed the scenario. But she has begun to have an impact beyond the Midwest. During her first term, she visited National Guard troops in Iraq. Last year, she took on a high-profile national assignment, serving as chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association.

If Sen. Hillary Clinton fails to capture the presidential nomination this year, many Democrats say Sebelius will remain high on any vice presidential short list.

Democrats close to the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama told CNN Sebelius will announce after tonight's State of the Union speech that she's endorsing Obama. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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