David Cameron. The conservative British prime minister is leading an austerity government. The recent announcement that college tuitions would triple led to student riots and a Cameron-led crackdown that included dozens of arrests. College tuitions will rise to $13,000 a year there, not something that engenders a lot of American sympathy. But Americans looking for a fiscal way forward will keep an eye on his leadership of a coalition government and his 80-20 model of spending cuts to tax hikes.
Jerry Brown. The new governor of California is facing a $25 billion budget shortfall, and he had promised voters he wouldn't raise taxes without a public vote. Brown is keeping predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger's finance chief, and the Sacramento Bee speculates that he may consider cutting costs by shortening the school year or releasing thousands of prisoners from jail—both of which would get the unhappy attention of middle-class voters. Other governors with similar budget woes will be watching closely.
Independent voters. The single biggest factor in the GOP's midterm success was the nearly 20-point swing away from Democrats among independent voters. Both parties will watch how their policies this year play with independents—from deficit reduction to hot-button social issues—because they know that this increasingly organized voting group holds the key to 2012.
Susana Martinez. She's the nation's first female Hispanic governor, replacing term-limited Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Martinez is a former prosecutor whose campaign ads featured her standing on the border calling for tougher enforcement of immigration laws. Her challenge is to change the GOP's message from anti-illegal immigrant to pro-legal immigration, something the party badly needs if it wants to build a conservative Hispanic coalition by 2012. [See editorial cartoons about immigration.]
Jon Stewart. Officially he's a comedian, but he's fast becoming a political trendsetter, given the number of people who get their first take on news from him. Consider that his shining the spotlight this month on the 9/11 responders healthcare bill helped get it passed. For that, the New York Times compared him to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, whose on-air editorializing turned the public against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War. The smart money says he's not going away anytime soon. And it'll be entertaining to watch along with him what 2011 holds for politics.