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Kristi Noem is on a political rocket ship. But do not rule out a crash.

"She's not the governor that people think she is," said Taffy Howard, a state representative and conservative hardliner who has clashed with Noem and is challenging Dusty Johnson, the state's Republican congressman, in his primary election this year.

"Everyone says, 'We love your governor, she did not shut down your state,'" Howard said. "It's the Conservatives in the House who did not shut the state down ... We forced her into a corner."

"She is very much a politician. She walks no matter which way the wind blows, ”Howard said.

Howard's view of Noem is now in the minority. The governor's rating among Republicans in South Dakota rose 8 percentage points last year to 86 percent, according to Morning Consult. And after nearly two years of seeing her oppose lockdowns - including some proposed by Republicans - her credibility with the conservative approach to Covid seems firm. In Sioux Falls, Republican Mayor Paul TenHaken, who publicly called for a shelter-in-place order in 2020, which put him at odds with Noem, began a conversation with me by saying, "I'm not interested in getting involved. me in any hit piece on our governor. "

"I think in some areas of the country there's almost a jealousy creeping in: 'We have to wear masks and we have to do this, so do you,'" TenHaken said. "In South Dakota, we're a pretty humble state, and so when someone like our governor gets national attention and starts focusing on her ... there are some people who don't like it."

He said: "She's a tough lady because that lady gets more shit than any politician I've ever seen at her level. It's been a tough year and she's just robust."

For TenHaken, there is more to Noem than Covid. He described her as a "woman of faith," a "woman of value," and a politician who "has a heart for preserving what has made South Dakota amazing - the outdoors, the hunt, the freedom." He recalled that when Noem visited Sioux Falls to tour damage after tornadoes tore through the city in 2019, he complimented her on her Nobull sneakers. The week after, she had sent him a pair of his size.

"I thought, 'Wow, what an incredibly thought-provoking thing to do in the midst of this chaos,'" he said. "It's one side of Christ's Noem that I wish more people would see."

Noem was not wearing sneakers, but boots, a denim jacket and black gloves when she drove to Brookings for South Dakota State University's eclectic Hobo Day parade on auction day in Sioux Falls.

While Johnson gathered the college Republicans by their float - "Good energy ... I love it!" - and Thune went ahead, Noem crossed the parade route past Nick's Hamburger Shop, Brookings Furniture Co. and Main Street Pub.

"How are you feeling?" she would ask, or "Are you okay?" She told a handful of young women that they should "stay warm, boys," and when she greeted five little girls, she gave them high-fives.

"Look at all these girls," Noem said. "Love it!"

The response to Noem from the sidewalks was at times misogynistic. A college student yelled at her, "Christ, you're so hot!" A man standing with a female cat called her.

But then came two teenage girls who tumbled out of a store when they saw Noem walk past and track her to the end of the parade route, where they were waiting to take a picture with her before she crawled into the back of an SUV. An elderly woman said to Noem, "We are so proud of you," while Layke Wold, a 15-year-old with a fan page for Noem on Instagram, jumped from her seat to pose with her in her "Noem-DeSantis" 24 "shirt.

When an elderly man shouted, "Christ to the President!" she slapped her wrist gently and said, "Don't do that."

Outside of South Dakota, Republicans see some potential for Noem - as a presidential candidate if Trump does not run in 2024, or as a vice president if he does. Several county party officials in the early nominating states of Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada told me that they have tried or are trying to book her for events. In Nevada, State Party President Michael McDonald said that when he asks activists who will be in charge of party functions, they all say Christ's Noem.

But there are signs that Noem is already suffering from the public's tiredness of pandemic politics - and from her inability to stand out on anything new. In February 2021, the CPAC straw poll, even though it was a narrow target for GOP activists' passions, got Noem to run second to DeSantis in a hypothetical 2024 presidential election in which Trump does not run again, by 11 percent. Jim McLaughlin, the pollster who conducted the straw poll, called her "a rock star" at the time. At CPAC's July meeting last year, Noem had dropped to 3 percent. In some national polls, she barely registers at all.

Noem does everything a small state governor can to re-enter the national conversation. Last month, to strengthen her credibility in the GOP's major culture war issue, she drafted legislation banning critical racial theory teaching in South Dakota schools, to codify her notices related to transgender women and girls in sports and for to guarantee students an opportunity to pray at the beginning of each school day. To a standing ovation in her State of the Nation address on Tuesday, she promised to pass legislation to ban abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, and she proposed removing fees for concealed weapons permits in the state.

On the morning of her speech, she appeared on Fox with Ben Carson, the former housing and urban development secretary, to promote a Trump-inspired promise of, among other promises, "restore honest, patriotic education that cultivates a deep love in our children for our country. " It was good for a TV hit, but it's hard to find a Republican there is it not talking about abortion or the second amendment or critical race theory, and there was some laughter in Pierre when Noem, who proclaims herself as the first candidate to sign the document, invited Carson to attend her State of the State speech and introduced him as "a my friend and a hero in his own right."

A longtime Republican donor to politicians in South Dakota, including Noem, said: "She will do everything she can to reach the national stage in 2024 or an appointment of a cabinet. But without Covid, it looks like she is fighting . "

Some may still be able to overcome the declining emergence of a pandemic. The morning after the auction in Sioux Falls, when Noam's guests began checking out and catching planes out of town, Dan Genter, who co-chaired Trump's "Sportsmen for Trump" coalition at the 2020 election, ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Genter, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based RNC Genter Capital Management, described Noem as a "special" politician with "strong self-awareness."

"As far as being in the right place at the right time, she's a female candidate who can round a ticket," he said. "She draws women, and she draws family values, which the Republican Party struggles a bit with."

In the short term, Genter said, Noem lacks the known network and fundraising network that some other potential candidates have already developed. And, he added, "You will not be able to run on Covid policy forever."

But the presidential election is only in two years. And 2024 will not be Noam's last shot; she's a whole generation younger than Trump and Biden.

When I asked Genter what could happen next for Noem, he shrugged:

"She has a quarter of a century of political life yet," he said. She has plenty of runway. "

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