Brainy, Blond And Ready To Rumble

One of the few bright spots for Democrats in the past year was the election of Jennifer Granholm as governor of Michigan. Her no-nonsense oratory, centrist politics and movie-star good looks have Democrats looking to her as their party's savior. Granholm's appeal is so widespread that conservative commentator George Will proposed changing the Constitution to allow foreign-born American citizens to become president. Granholm, who was born in Canada, laughs off the suggestion. She doesn't mind the constitutional impediment--at least for now. "It's kind of a relief that I don't have to worry about that. It's nice not to have to be a threat to people."

The November election returns weren't even in when the presidential contenders came calling. Michigan is a key battleground state, and having a Democratic governor could make the difference in 2004. Michigan voters like independent, no-nonsense candidates, attributes that Granholm displayed as attorney general before making her bid for governor. A compelling mix of tough-minded prosecutor and down-to-earth mom, she cracked down on gas gougers after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, staged a sting on retailers who sold adult-rated video-games to minors and pressured Abercrombie & Fitch to stop selling its sexually explicit catalog to minors in Michigan. "I'm not a prude," she told NEWSWEEK. "But I am someone who cares about the messages the next generation receives."

In a Democratic Party searching for new leaders, Granholm, 43, is positioned for stardom. She is smart, a graduate of Berkeley and Harvard Law, well grounded as a wife and mother of three, and loaded with charisma. The presidency remains a boy's club, but it's no accident that Granholm and other women are getting attention among Democrats. "We have our feet on the ground," says Granholm, who campaigned on practical, nonideological solutions to problems. She told voters she wouldn't raise taxes. But running a state with a billion-dollar-plus deficit, she'll have to cut programs and postpone keeping the promises that got her elected, like reducing class sizes.

To manage expectations in a state that hasn't had a Democratic governor in more than a decade, she plans to take the show on the road and gin up Ross Perot-like charts to illustrate the economic crisis she faces. She thinks that by being brutally candid, she can buy herself some time. Cupping her hands as though shouting to the masses, she says loudly, "Give me a year and a half--please."

Politics is performance art, and Granholm instinctively gets it. She initially pursued a career in Hollywood, and once appeared on "The Dating Game." She has stage presence and intellectual panache, talents she will need to survive politically. As the only Democratic state officeholder in Michigan, she faces a Republican legislature looking for a fight--and an ongoing FBI investigation of al-legations that the local Democratic machine, which gave rise to Granholm, illegally diverted county employees and county resources such as computers and fax machines for fund-raising and other political purposes.

Granholm has no illusions about what's ahead. She expects her honeymoon to be short and her poll numbers to dip. Yet she's optimistic. Grabbing "The Plan," her 79-page blueprint for Michigan's future, she says, "By gum, we're going to get this stuff done if it kills me." Then, adds Michigan's first woman governor, "I'm one tough broad." She'll have to be, for herself and her party.