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Tuesday primaries: Year of the Republican woman dawning?

Polls show women leading four key Republican races heading into the Tuesday primaries.

Carly Fiorina, a candidate for the Republican nomination for the US Senate, speaks to reporters in front of the county building in San Diego Monday. Ms. Fiorina, who faces former congressman Tom Campbell and state assemblyman Chuck DeVore, is one of several prominent women involved in the Tuesday primaries.

Gregory Bull/AP

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Is this the year of the Republican woman? On the eve of the biggest primary day of the season, women have surged into the lead spots in four high-profile Republican races.

These races – in California, Nevada, and South Carolina, plus the runoff for the Democratic Senate nomination in Arkansas, which also features a woman – capture the two other salient features of this wild and wooly primary season: the rise of the “tea party” movement and the backlash against incumbents.

Perhaps it is a sign of how far women have advanced politically that, in some cases, they are now duking it out against other women and using self-made wealth in the process. Below is a snapshot of how the top races are shaking out:

California

Time was when women running for office often did so on the backs of their husbands, or at least their husbands’ wealth. Not so in California. Both Meg Whitman, leading in the polls for the GOP gubernatorial primary, and Carly Fiorina, favored to win the Senate primary, made their money in business.

Ms. Whitman is the former CEO of eBay and Ms. Fiorina ran HP, and both are arguing that government needs a dose of the bottom-line orientation of business.

Whitman may have a more credible argument on that score, as Fiorina did not have the happiest of tenures at HP. But Whitman is running for governor of a state gaining in reputation as ungovernable, and as a newcomer to politics, that may in fact be a liability.

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In November, she would face former Gov. Jerry Brown, the only serious contender in the Democratic primary. Not only has former Governor Brown already served two terms in the statehouse (before term limits were instituted), he is also the current state attorney general and former mayor of Oakland. Political handicappers label a Whitman-Brown race a tossup.

In the primary, Whitman’s main challenger is state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, who is more conservative than Whitman. He has nudged her to right, especially on immigration, which could hurt her in the general election. Most striking about their race is the amount of cash each has spent: $80 million by Whitman and more than $23 million by Poizner, who also made his fortune in high tech.

The Senate race is no less eye-catching, with the wealthy Fiorina going up against a moderate former congressman, Tom Campbell, and a more conservative state assemblyman, Chuck DeVore. Fiorina’s candidacy got a big boost when tea party favorite and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed her.

The winner in Tuesday’s primary will go up against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who cannot match Fiorina on personal wealth and who bears the risky label of “incumbent.” Analysts call this a marquee race for the fall.

South Carolina

Former Alaska Governor Palin injected herself in this state’s GOP gubernatorial primary with her endorsement of state Rep. Nikki Haley for governor. Once considered a longshot for her party’s nomination against three high-profile men – state Attorney General Henry McMaster, Rep. Gresham Barrett, and Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer – Representative Haley has shot to the lead in polls.

With the other three men polling in double digits, however, Haley is not likely to win a majority on Tuesday and so will face a runoff with the No. 2 finisher on June 22.

Haley’s candidacy has been striking in two ways. One, her Indian-American heritage makes her the first woman of color to have a serious shot at statewide office in South Carolina. And allegations of extramarital affairs have put her in the middle of a political-sexual maelstrom usually reserved for men.

Could it be that women candidates have come so far they, too, are now fair game for this sort of story?

Nevada

Senate majority leader Harry Reid has long been seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats this cycle, but that was before the tea party movement got active in Nevada politics. Tea party support for state assemblywoman Sharron Angle has given her a lead in the three-way GOP primary, and some Republicans are concerned an Angle-Reid general could breathe new life into Reid’s political career.

Angle’s ultra-conservative agenda – she favors, for example, phasing out Social Security and closing the Department of Education – may give some swing voters pause in this purple state, and Reid is banking on this to lure voters back to his camp.

Arkansas

Ever since incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) failed to win a majority in her state’s primary three weeks ago, her runoff against Lieutenant Gov. Bill Halter (D) has been the talk of Democratic circles.

The race pits the more centrist, establishment-backed Senator Lincoln against the liberal, union-backed Lieutanant Governor Halter. If Lincoln goes down, she will provide yet more evidence of an anti-incumbent mood among voters. If Halter does beat her in the primary, polls show him doing slightly less badly against the Republican nominee, Rep. John Boozman. So either way, Lincoln’s days may well be numbered in the Senate.

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