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GOP Rising Stars: Head of the Class

Five Freshman Lawmakers Show Potential for Leadership

It’s not always easy to spot a rising star on Capitol Hill.

Some lawmakers get elected to Congress with much fanfare and promise, only to see their careers get stuck in neutral. Others arrive quietly but are able to become players through assiduous cultivation of their colleagues, party leaders and the media.

Less than a year into the 108th Congress, it is still too early to say definitively which members of the House GOP freshman class are destined for bigger and better things. But already there are a handful of first-term lawmakers who have caught the attention of the Capitol’s powerbrokers.

In the view of many senior Republican Members and aides, here are the top five GOP freshmen to watch:

Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.)

Many House Republicans believe Blackburn has a bright future, but it may not be in the House.

After serving four years in the Tennessee state Senate, the former marketing consultant was elected easily in 2002 in the race to replace ex-Rep. Ed Bryant (R). While in the Legislature, Blackburn drew attention for helping to lead the fight against then-Gov. Don Sundquist’s (R) proposed income tax.

Now, less than a year into her first term on the Hill, the 51-year-old Blackburn is being talked about as a possible statewide candidate. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) has said he will not run for re-election in 2006, and Blackburn may well run in what would likely be a crowded field to replace him.

In the House, Blackburn has quickly become known as an outspoken conservative. GOP aides say she often speaks up during the Republican Conference’s weekly meetings. A member of the Whip team, the Tennessean is also not shy about sharing her views during Whip meetings.

The Republican leadership sees Blackburn as a principled conservative who is nonetheless willing to cut a deal if it helps advance the GOP’s broader agenda. And, when Blackburn votes a certain way, she brings some other conservative votes with her.

John Carter (Texas)

Choosing to hang up his robes after 20 years as a district judge in Williamson County, Carter jumped into the race for the newly drawn 31st district and won a tough GOP primary and an easier general election.

Known as “Judge” to many of his House GOP colleagues, Carter has been quiet so far on the Hill but has positioned himself well for the future.

Carter managed to snag the post of freshman class representative on the Republican Steering Committee, a position much more influential behind the scenes than that of freshman class president.

Since Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) held the post after he was elected in 1984, the Steering Committee position has almost inevitably led to better and brighter things for its occupants. A seat on Steering provides a new lawmaker with the chance to do favors for his colleagues and to get an early introduction to the machinations of leadership.

The post usually ensures that its holder will get a choice committee assignment much more quickly than rank-and-file lawmakers. Both of the past two freshman representatives before Carter, Reps. John Sweeney (N.Y.) and John Culberson (Texas), now serve on the Appropriations Committee.

Whether the 61-year-old Carter has any leadership aspirations of his own is not clear, but he has become something of a protégé of National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.).

Tom Cole (Okla.)

Having taken the seat of a leader, former Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts, Cole could be moving into the House GOP leadership ranks himself before too long.

The 53-year-old Cole has a sterling political résumé — state GOP chairman, state Senator, executive director of the NRCC, Oklahoma secretary of state, chief of staff at the Republican National Committee and head of his own polling and consulting firm.

Cole brought his considerable political experience to the House after winning a relatively tough race against Democrat Darryl Roberts.

As an Assistant Majority Whip and an active member of the Armed Services Committee, Cole has worked hard on the policy front. But many House GOP observers see his real talents as political.

Given his consulting background and his stint running the NRCC, Cole is viewed as a very likely candidate to chair the party committee himself in the not-too-distant future. He is currently one of four freshmen on the NRCC’s executive committee.

Tom Feeney (Fla.)

Feeney came to Washington with a certain degree of notoriety for his prominent role as state House Speaker during the 2000 Florida recount.

Although he has not yet made waves in D.C., Feeney is known to be ambitious and could well decide to run for Senate or try to move into the House GOP leadership before too long.

If he decides to make such a move, Feeney, 45, would be helped by his experience in Florida. Leaders in the state Legislature often come to the Hill with an advantage in that they are already veterans at cutting deals and putting together broad coalitions of lawmakers.

Feeney has helped to shore up his conservative credentials by co-founding Washington Waste Watchers with fellow freshman GOP Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.) and Jeb Hensarling (Texas). He also successfully pushed an amendment that imposed tighter restrictions on federal judges’ leeway in sentencing convicts.

Feeney is also on the NRCC’s executive committee and is known as a prolific fundraiser.

Candice Miller (Mich.)

While Democrats often speak of the charisma and youth of recently elected Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Republicans believe they have their own rising star in the Wolverine State.

Miller, 49, easily took the redistricted seat of former Minority Whip David Bonior (D) after serving as Michigan secretary of state for eight years. Republicans at home and in Washington have taken note of her ability to win convincingly as a committed conservative in an ideological swing state.

In the House, she has mostly tended to district issues but has also dabbled with some leadership projects. Miller helps the NRCC with recruiting and the Republican Conference with message.

Having already been elected statewide, Miller could choose to run in 2006 against Granholm or Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). Given her attractive profile and her Michigan roots, some GOP observers muse that Miller could even adorn a presidential ticket one day.

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