[Read about Ron Paul's Youth Movement.]
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Is there anything this guy can't do? The Democratic governor of New York cajoled a Republican-dominated state Senate to pass a gay marriage law during his first year in office. But he also brokered a deal with the public sector unions to freeze pay, implement furlough days, and increase worker contributions for health insurance. He capped property taxes and cut spending. Now, he's pushing a package that would increase taxes on the state's wealthiest in order to avoid steep cuts in programs such as education. And he's not being met with universal opposition, unlike other making similar arguments elsewhere around the country. The biggest open secret in Democratic politics is that Cuomo will seek the presidency in 2016.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
The bombastic New Jersey governor was first elected in 2009 but really came into his own in 2011, eschewing calls that he should run for president. In turning down the GOP establishment, Christie became a powerful player in the endorsement game (he backs Mitt Romney) and maintains his wild popularity with the base. And what's got them whipped up into such a frenzy? The former state attorney general's direct manner and willingness to berate the media and citizens he sees as critics of his "common sense" policies. He's fought for and won concessions from his Democratically-controlled legislature on education, labor unions, and budget issues. His unabashed conservatism on one hand and ability to point to tough compromises on the other allows him to tout an ability to work across the aisle and get things accomplished without anyone questioning his credentials. And his confrontational manner has made him a YouTube and television hero to the GOP.
Sec. of State Hillary Clinton
It may be a hard sell to call the former first lady a newcomer, but in her role as Secretary of State Clinton has more influence now than she ever did as a presidential candidate or senator. Far and away the most challenging time during her tenure as the country's top diplomat came during the Arab Spring, when the United States, leading the rest of the world, had to navigate the delicate and rapidly changing Middle Eastern landscape. When do former allies begin getting treated like enemies? From Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, that was the question Clinton had to help President Obama answer – both to the world and at home. And it was at Clinton's urging that the U.S. 'led from behind' and engaged in a military operation in Libya, a move initially criticized but eventually deemed necessary and successful. She's not only the most traveled Secretary of State, but she's worked double time making historic trips to places like Myanmar while promoting women's rights around the world.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul
Even if he weren't a top candidate in the GOP presidential race, it could be called the year of Paul because of the influence his long-held ideas have had on the Republican political landscape. Mantras like 'end the Fed' and libertarianism may be en vogue now, but no single politician has worked harder to change the conversation on those topics than Paul. The 12-term Texas congressman's brand of small government politics – genuine and uncompromising – finally found a larger audience during the 2010 mid-term election and has helped fuel his presidential candidacy in 2011. So no matter where he ends up at the end of the presidential race, he's already changed the framework of what it takes for a Republican win the nomination.
They camped. They marched. They mic-checked. And they helped shape the political conversation from worries about deficits to concerns about concentrated wealth and a disappearing middle-class in America. The at-times unruly protestors inhabited public parks starting in New York City and then spread across the country, tapping into a universal angst in 2011, similar to Tea Party protesters of the preceding years. The free-wheeling, bottom-up movement has yet to follow its conservative counterpart's path in recruiting and funding candidates to unseat sitting politicians, though. And the question of whether or not 'Occupiers' have staying power past their broken encampments remains unanswered.