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10 to watch in '08

By Sean Daly, Aaron Sharockman, Wes Allison, Bull Duryea, Times Staff Writers
Published January 1, 2008

Oprah Winfrey has waded into a new realm; she is campaigning vigorously for Barack Obama.
[AP photo]

Assembling this list of 10 people to watch in 2008, we deliberately avoided choosing a presidential contender. So we chose a legless runner, a storm-to-be, a scientist under siege, a talk show host on  a new stage, an "American" in Paris, a stadium strategist, a bellwether congresswoman and the "Pied Pipette of the tween set." Guess what? Politics runs rampant through the list anyway. Fitting then, that you, the Florida voter, are on our list. You've got a big year ahead. 

Nicolas Sarkozy

1. With a potent mixture of diplomatic savoir faire and American initiative, Nicolas Sarkozy is quickly redefining his country at home and abroad.

Domestically, the man known as "Sarko l'Americain" is pushing a revolutionary package of personal accountability and industry. He has little patience for those who would sooner cripple the economy than work 40 hours a week. "Work more to earn more," he has said. He jogs (very un-French) and avoids talking in abstractions (a kind of treason in Parisian intellectual circles).

When he wanted people to find out about his new girlfriend, where did he arrange for the media to find him? Disneyland Paris.

On the international scene, Sarkozy has quickly distanced himself from his predecessor's reputation as the American nemesis. He has made the plight of hostages in Colombia, including three Americans, a national cause. He helped broker $7-billion for the Palestinians to shore up Mahmoud Abbas (with Condoleezza Rice by his side), essential to the peace process. And he wants to keep pressure on Iran.

Sympathetic to America, but not slavish to it, Sarkozy may well become the most popular world president since FDR.

Oprah Winfrey

2. "I don't believe in failure," Oprah once said. "It is not failure if you enjoyed the process."

Let's face it. Oprah, the world's first black, female billionaire, hasn't failed at much recently.

But now she has waded into a new realm - and there aren't many of those for a woman who owns her own magazine and movie production company and whose talk show reaches 30-million viewers a day. She is campaigning vigorously for Barack Obama.

For the next several months, she will lend her good name - her unparalleled brand, if you will - to his. And it may not work.

He might not make it out of the mosh pit of early primaries. So we'll watch with interest how Oprah applies her own advice to that unique experience of backing the wrong horse.

And if Obama wins the nomination? She'll have rewritten the conventional wisdom that downplays the value of celebrity endorsements.

Win or lose, there'll be a lesson in it for us.

Oscar Pistorius

3. The debate over unfair competitive advantage in sports is focused for the moment on the locker rooms of Major League Baseball. But it hardly seems like unfair advantage when pitchers and hitters were buying from the same source.

The more interesting debate is taking place on the running track where a South African sprinter is challenging the notion of what it means to be disabled. Pistorius, 21, calls himself "the fastest thing on no legs." Born without the fibula bone in his lower legs, he runs on slender carbon-fiber bows that fit snugly onto the stumps beneath his knees.

The thing is, he runs really fast.

He won the 100 and 200 meters in the Paralympic games in Athens. And he keeps getting faster. His best time in the 200 would have beaten the able-bodied female winner at the Olympic Games.

Now he wants to compete against the able-bodied men in Beijing. But here's the rub: International track officials worry that his prostheses don't just level the playing field, they may give Pistorius an advantage over runners with normal legs.

Scientists are trying to figure out whether Pistorius' J-shaped "Cheetahs" give him more spring than the muscles in a natural leg. Some say the carbon leg is far less efficient. Some say more.

But whether Pistorius is allowed to compete in Beijing or not, his ability to close the gap between disabled and able-bodied has likely changed sports forever.

Charles Darwin

4. Despite 148 years of uninterrupted scientific validation, Darwin and his seminal work, The Origin of Species, continue to lose ground to the Judeo-Christian creation story.

Just this month, a majority of the Pinellas School Board said they thought it would be good to balance the teaching of evolution with creationism, which one of them said "can explain some of the gaps and holes in the theory of evolution."

Just how an untestable assertion that the world was made in six days could explain these unspecified inadequacies is left unclear.

Scientists are discovering that evolutionary changes - lighter skin color to produce more vitamin D in colder climates, the ability to digest raw milk, earlier reproductive age in harsher environments - have been accelerating over the past 80,000 years.

Still, only 42 percent of Americans say they believe Darwin's theory.

Someone with a flair for make-overs - Queer Eye for the Science Guy? - needs to step in fast and save this old wonk from extinction.

Florida Voter

5. Mark down these dates:

Jan. 29. The presidential primary. Big stuff for Republicans, mostly symbolic for Democrats. But even if you don't care to weigh in on that wide-open contest, you've got the property tax amendment to reckon with.

Are you one of the homeowners who would benefit from being able to carry your Save Our Homes cap with you when you buy another house, or are you a nonhomesteaded property owner who doesn't see much in it for you?

Nov. 4. The chance to affect the course of two wars, reshape U.S. foreign policy and consolidate Democratic gains in Congress or restore some GOP muscle to the legislative branch.

You might even have a chance to say something about the pace of development in Florida if the Hometown Democracy initiative makes it on the ballot.

You'll be busy this year.

But only if you vote.

Hannah Montana

6. Are you ready for the LOUDEST YEAR EVER, courtesy of a 15-year-old phenom in a bad blond wig?

Disney Channel pop princess Hannah Montana (aka Miley Cyrus, the real live girl who plays her) is the Pied Pipette of the "tween" set, boys and girls ages 8 to 12. For those who don't have one of these at home, you ought to know tweens are the dominant pop-culture force of the 21st century.

Tweens helped Hannah have a No. 1 cable show, a No. 1 album and the fastest-selling tour of 2007. They also made Disney's High School Musical franchise (movies, music, merchandise) a billion-dollar behemoth.

But who knew the cute and curly-topped collective had political sway? When tickets to the Hannah tour were gobbled up in record time, the outcry from frustrated parents led all the way to the statehouse, as politicos nationwide launched investigations into broker practices.

Hannah Montana, who will continue touring in '08, might very well change the way we buy and sell concert tickets. She'll also have something to say about movie tickets, as her first feature film hits theaters like a cotton-candy monsoon.

Throw in the arrival of High School Musical 3, plus an accompanying barrage of CDs, clothing and related foofaraw, and tweens will once again have the entertainment biz bowing to them.

Scream all you want, Mom and Dad. Everybody else is.

Gen. David Petraeus

7. Could the person who has the most say in the 2008 presidential election be a general who spends most of his time in Iraq?

Think about it this way: The decrease in violence in Iraq, overseen by Petraeus, has changed the tenor of the debate on the war. It's almost shut it down.

Democrats can still scream about the terrible reasons the war was begun, but they can't argue against progress, so they don't. Republicans can claim credit for the surge, but they can't argue that it makes up for the three years of mismanagement and mess, so they don't.

What happens then if Petraeus can manage more of the same? Would voters turn their attention elsewhere as they settle into the grudging realization that we will be in Iraq for many years to come? And which candidate benefits most from that?

Ten months is a long time and much can change between now and Election Day.

In the end, how we vote may well depend on how good a year the general has.

Hurricane Arthur

8....or Bertha or Cristobal or Dolly or Edouard or Fay or Gustav or Hanna or Ike or Josephine or Kyle or Laura or Marco or Nana or Omar or Paloma or Rene or Sally or Teddy or Vicky or Wilfred.

Two years without a hurricane, but during that time we've shifted more and more risk onto the state's shoulders. How long will that strategy pay off? Will one of these storms be the one that shakes us from our complacency, the one that breaks the bank?

Kathy Castor

9. The first-term congresswoman from Tampa has been taken under the wing of the leadership and, if she continues to do their bidding, could move up the ranks to some leadership positions. If not in 2008, then most likely after the election in the natural ebb and flow of new members.

But her rise depends on following the leadership on just about everything, which so far she has shown no inclination to defy. The Democratic leadership likes young, articulate, ambitious members - particularly women. Castor, 41, fits that bill perfectly.

The fact she's in a safe seat allows her to support leadership on about anything without alienating her voters. In return, but she's been rewarded with some high-profile committee assignments (Armed Services, Rules), a spot on the Democratic steering committee, which doles out committee positions to other members, and she has been allowed to manage some key bills, including the first round of SCHIP, the health care insurance program for poor and middle income children.

Watching Castor will give a good indication of how the party as a whole is faring.

Michael Kalt

10. Another in the line of the Rays Ivy League-educated prodigies, Kalt, 33, is being asked to shepherd the delicate stadium negotiations for the team. Oh, and convince residents that they need a whole new downtown.

In New York, he brokered stadium deals under Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the Yankees and Mets. Compared to what he'll have to accomplish here, that's going to seem like a stint in the minor leagues.

Unlike St. Petersburg, in New York Kalt didn't have to win over city voters.

Expect to see Kalt. A lot.

[Last modified January 1, 2008, 10:53:06]

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