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Commentary: The year of the women in 2010?

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I've written this column so many times for so many years that it makes me nervous even to begin. More than 25 years after Geraldine Ferraro crashed the glass ceiling to be nominated for vice president, we should be long past "years of the woman."

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When men win, we call it Tuesday.

Someday, the same will be true for women. But until that day, it's still worth taking note of every new crack in what has turned out to be a cement ceiling, not a glass one.

California has two women senators, but it has never had a woman governor. Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO who won the Republican gubernatorial nomination without having to move to the right ($70 million and change of her own money helped), has a real chance of winning that office, although no one should count out Attorney General Jerry Brown. He may be 72 and a career politician, but there is no one who fights harder.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will have a much tougher time against Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer. Fiorina went to the right to beat former Congressman Tom Campbell, who probably would have given Boxer a tougher race. But one way or the other, California will continue to be represented by two women in the Senate.

And it wasn't just Republican women scoring big. In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln did not become the third incumbent senator to lose their party's nomination. She held on against a challenge from her left. And here in California, Kamala Harris is looking to break multiple barriers in her race for attorney general.

But for my money, perhaps the most important initiative I've ever voted for on a California ballot -- and in two decades of voting here, I've voted for many -- is the open primary law sponsored by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and fiercely opposed by both political parties. It has the potential to dramatically change who gets nominated in the state, giving power to the people in the middle.

As things stand now, in California as in most states, activists control primaries and moderates control general elections. The challenge in contested primaries is to not move so far to the right -- or left -- that you leave the majority of voters behind.

The tea party movement is flexing its muscles this year on the Republican side, as MoveOn and labor unions have been doing for some years on the Democratic side. But it remains to be seen whether the tea party favorites can win general elections. In Kentucky and Nevada, tea party victories have given Democrats their first-choice opponents.

In California, this has been happening for years. The only reason Schwarzenegger became governor in the first place was because the Republicans committed suicide in the primary the year before, rejecting the popular Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan and instead picking the only candidate incumbent Gray Davis could beat. After Davis won, he got recalled in an open election that allowed the moderate Schwarzenegger to become governor without having to win a contested Republican primary.

Under the new California law, everyone will get the same ballot, and the top two vote-getters will face off in the general election. Whether that will produce more women in higher office remains to be seen. But there is every reason to hope it will mean we will have fewer excuses to complain in November about not liking the choices -- regardless of sex.

Susan Estrich's e-mail address is sestrich@wctrib.com.

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