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Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate gives her acceptance speech during her election night party at a hotel in Anaheim, June 8, 2010. (Alex Gallardo / Reuters)
Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate gives her acceptance speech during her election night party at a hotel in Anaheim, June 8, 2010. (Alex Gallardo / Reuters)

U.S. Politics

Meet the new face of the GOP: female, high-powered and growing in strength Add to ...

Meet Nimrata Randhawa - better known as Nikki Haley, the new feminine face of the Republican Party.

Well, one of them, anyway

From Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California, to Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Sharron Angle in Nevada, the past week of primaries has left the GOP with an embarrassment of high-profile, high-powered female candidates to help counter its long-standing gender deficit.

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Sarah Palin, the original self-described "mama grizzly," has company.

The new faces present the GOP with an estrogen-laced opportunity to broaden its image beyond that of the "angry white men" peopling Tea Party protests and throw off common depictions of the party as the last bastion of reactionary nostalgics pining for an America that is long gone.

Ms. Haley, an elegant and energetic 38-year-old Indian-American member of the South Carolina state house, has GOP operatives giddy at the prospect.

She emerged from fourth in the polls only weeks ago to top the ballot in Tuesday's South Carolina Republican governor's primary, capturing national attention and putting a fresh face on a party whose front line has been looking somewhat stale-dated and overwhelmingly pasty and male.

Except, of course, for Ms. Palin. And Ms. Haley has the former GOP vice- presidential nominee to thank for her sudden stardom. After an endorsement last month from Ms. Palin, Ms. Haley rocketed in popularity to finish 27 percentage points ahead of her nearest rival in Tuesday's primary.

Though she fell just short of the 50 per cent needed to win outright, and faces a June 22 runoff to secure her spot as the GOP nominee for the governor's race, the Republican establishment has already rushed to embrace (and exploit) their new star and implore her rival to bow out now.

In a sometimes seedy primary race, Ms. Haley, the daughter of Sikh immigrants, overcame last-minute charges of not one, but two extramarital trysts (denied) and endured a racial slur by a member of the South Carolina Senate who bemoaned that with "one raghead in the White House, we don't need another in the governor's mansion." Her grace and grit - and Tea Party-backed conservative bona fides - made her an overnight sensation.

"She is very articulate, has a lot of charisma and has caught fire in South Carolina in the last month," former U.S. ambassador to Canada and ex-speaker of the state's House of Representatives, David Wilkins, offered in an interview. "From the beginning of her service in 2005, she was an up-and-comer in the House and you could tell she was someone who was ambitious and conservative and had a real opportunity to go places."

South Carolina is a staunchly Republican state, leading most pundits to predict that Ms. Haley can already start measuring the drapes at the gubernatorial mansion. Victory in November would leave her as the second American governor of Indian descent, along with Louisiana Republican Bobby Jindal, and make her an automatic power player in the GOP.

An accountant who began doing the books for the family business at 13, Ms. Haley is joined by Ms. Whitman, 53, the Republican candidate for California governor, and Ms. Fiorina, 55, the GOP's Senate nominee in the Golden State, in projecting an image of modern, successful Republican women that is potentially appealing to female voters. The latter overwhelmingly identify with the Democratic Party - 44 per cent to 24 per cent according to recent analysis by Washington consultants NDN.

"Career politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., be warned: You now face your worst nightmare - two businesswomen from the real world who know how to create jobs, balance budgets and get things done," former eBay chief executive Ms. Whitman, in a nod to ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Ms. Fiorina, charged in her victory speech.

Ms. Martinez, a county district attorney in New Mexico who caught national attention with Ms. Palin's endorsement, could help the party repair its antagonistic relationship with Hispanics. She is running to replace the popular Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election.

Ms. Angle, 60, who won the Nevada Republican Senate primary with Tea Party backing but no endorsement from Ms. Palin, is the true outlier of the bunch. With libertarian views that parallel those of Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul, the GOP establishment has kept its distance from her, even though she stands a strong chance of knocking off the embattled Democratic incumbent and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Except for Ms. Whitman, all of these female GOP candidates stridently oppose abortion. That might be a non-starter with the young Millennial women the GOP desperately needs to court.

And it will take more than this group of new recruits to help Republicans close the gender gap.

"Running candidates like Nikki Haley, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina is a good start," noted Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington. "But it does not obscure the fact that the overwhelming majority of women candidates who are running this fall are Democrats."

So are 69 of the 90 current female members of Congress.

For this week, however, GOP stands for Girls Obtaining Power.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

 

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