ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Tomorrow night, President Bush will deliver his last State of the Union Address. Afterwards, the Democratic Party's response will be delivered by Kathleen Sebelius. She's the extremely popular Democratic governor of Kansas, a state dominated by Republicans. The Democrats are once again putting forward one of their rising stars from a red state to give their rebuttal.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Kansas City on who Sebelius is and how she governs.
JASON BEAUBIEN: Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius is a moderate Democrat who's not only survived but thrived among members of the opposition. In a state in which only 26 percent of voters are registered Democrats, Sebelius won her second term in a landslide. Her poll numbers peaked last fall with roughly 70 percent of Kansans approving of her job performance.
Professor BOB BEATTY (Political Science, Washburn University): Governor Sebelius is one of the smartest politicians I've watched and studied.
BEAUBIEN: Bob Beatty is an associate professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka. Beatty says Sebelius understands where the majority lies in Kansas politics.
Prof. BEATTY: She downplays the fact that she's a Democrat. And she just says I want the government to work. And then she stresses things that are very popular in Kansas. One is education. The second is patriotism and concern for Kansans who are in the military.
BEAUBIEN: Beatty says the governor is a cautious politician. She's pro-choice but rarely mentions this in a state where anti-abortion sentiment is strong. She opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but wasn't going to fight about it. During her 2006 reelection campaign, her television ads never mentioned party affiliation. They call her independent as she touts herself as a no-nonsense-get-things-done politician.
Governor KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (Democrat, Kansas): Ensuring a prosperous future and great schools in every corner of Kansas, early childhood learning, a university system that's second to none and making Kansas a national leader in energy independence - these are our goals and the reason I'm eager to keep Kansas moving forward.
BEAUBIEN: Her moderation comes in part because she comes from a mixed political family. Her father, John Gilligan, was a Democratic governor of Ohio, her father-in-law, Keith Sebelius, was a Republican congressman from Kansas.
Beatty of Washburn University says this tells you a lot about Sebelius.
Prof. BEATTY: She had to learn to get along with Republicans in the state.
BEAUBIEN: Sebelius not only got along with Republicans, she also got several high-profile members of the GOP to change their party affiliation and join her administration. Both her lieutenant governors were such converts; one of them, Mark Parkinson, was the former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. Needless to say, Sebelius has driven state GOP officials crazy.
Mr. CHRISTIAN MORGAN (Executive Director, Kansas Republican Party): She and I have been basic political opponents for the last couple of year, maybe a few years.
BEAUBIEN: Christian Morgan is the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. He managed the campaign against Sebelius' reelection in 2006. In his office in a strip mall in Topeka, Morgan says Sebelius is an expert politician, but he doesn't mean this as a compliment.
Mr. MORGAN: She ducks the hard issues. She holds press conferences where she doesn't take any questions. She does not show much leadership in the legislature unless the polls really direct her to.
BEAUBIEN: While there's criticism from GOP stalwarts in Topeka, praise has been heaped on her by Democrats in Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in announcing that Sebelius would give the Democratic response to the State of the Union address, calls her a forward-thinking leader who demonstrates the power of reaching across the political aisle.
Last year, Sebelius chaired the Democratic Governors Association and helped raise millions of dollars for Democratic gubernatorial candidates. And adding to her national exposure, the 59-year-old Sebelius also appears in the current issue of Vogue magazine. The lead photo is of her in a sleeveless Oscar de la Renta dress in front of a mural of the lady of justice. The article is just as flattering.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.
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