In South Dakota, a Democratic 'Mama Grizzly' Fights a Palin Doppelganger

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has long been considered political royalty in South Dakota, where she comes from an illustrious political family and has so far served three terms as the state's sole House representative in Washington. But as Philip Rucker reports in the Washington Post, she is far from anointed this election season. Herseth Sandlin is facing a bitter challenge in Kristi Noem, a state representative who's riding the pro-Sarah Palin, anti-Nancy Pelosi wave -- and stands a good chance to unseat Herseth Sandlin:

Nationally, Herseth Sandlin is considered a rising star in her party, the Democrats' own "mama grizzly" straight out of the heartland. She gained her seat in this Republican-leaning state at age 33 in a 2004 special election to succeed William J. Janklow (R), who resigned because of a manslaughter conviction. She won her last two races in landslides, capturing nearly 70 percent of the vote.

But 2010 is a different time, and Herseth Sandlin, 39, faces her most serious threat yet. Noem, 38, is authentic, tall and lean, soft-spoken but tough, an unabashed conservative who rarely strays off script. She's a made-for-Fox News star in her own right.

The race is garnering national attention not just because it features two young, attractive women in the "Mama Grizzly" mold, but because of its larger political implications:

The "Battle of the Babes," as some political watchers in the state are calling it, will decide more than just who holds South Dakota's at-large House seat. It is a test of whether Republicans, in their bid to recapture the House, can win in the 48 congressional districts, including this one, that are represented by Democrats but whose voters went for John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. It also is a test of whether moderate Democrats, like Herseth Sandlin, who often vote against their party on controversial issues, can survive in an unusually tumultuous year. Recent public polling showed Noem with a small lead.

For Herseth Sandlin and Noem, there's more at stake. South Dakota political strategists say the winner will become the overwhelming favorite to eventually succeed Sen. Tim Johnson (D), whose term ends in 2014. Johnson was recently hospitalized for gall bladder surgery, but his spokeswoman, Julianne Fisher, said he is in good health and has no plans to retire.

But more than anything, this campaign, playing out across the small cities and prairie towns that dot South Dakota's vast terrain, is a window into the heartland values of fiscal responsibility and government restraint that promise to shape outcomes this fall as well as in Obama's 2012 reelection bid.

Read the full story at the Washington Post.