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State of the Union: Can Joni Ernst avoid the rebuttal curse?

Joni Ernst speaking on stage Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Joni Ernst has been chosen to give the rebuttal as she's seen as a rising star in the Republican party

Republicans have chosen freshman Senator Joni Ernst to deliver their rebuttal to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. But history shows the honour can be a double-edged sword for politicians looking to leap into the national spotlight.

The Republican Party has announced freshman Senator Joni Ernst will deliver the conservative rebuttal speech to President Barack Obama's upcoming State of the Union address, after less than one month on the job.

For Republican strategist Katie Packer Gage, the decision was far from unexpected.

"She is an up and coming rising star within the party," Gage told the BBC. "I'm not at all surprised they would go with somebody that's kind of a fresh face."

Ernst burst onto the scene during the 2014 mid-term elections, gaining notoriety for a campaign ad in which she discussed castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, promising to "cut pork" in Washington if elected.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The daughter of an Iowa pig farmer, Joni Ernst is seen as a champion of America's heartland

She went on to become Iowa's first woman senator and the first female combat veteran to serve in the nation's highest Congressional chamber.

For Lara Brown, programme director of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, the decision to put Ernst front and centre on Tuesday night is a wise one.

"They want to put her forward as a woman from essentially the heartland… a state really where the presidential race will kick off," she says.

The selection of Ernst, 44, is also just the thing Republicans need to fight long-held public perceptions of their party, she adds.

"It's a smart move," Brown explains. "[Republicans] have been under assault lately for both the war on women and for being really seen only as the party of white men."

PR oppportunity

Next week, experts say, the conservative party has a chance to change their image, laying out an agenda putting Obama and the Democrats on the defensive.

"[Republicans] are trying to capitalise on all that [mid-term] energy and enthusiasm, and at the same time turn the election page and say 'It's time to get to work'," Brown says.

But the rebuttal speech can be a very difficult needle to thread. The Republican Party does not know exactly what Obama will say in the State of the Union, aired immediately beforehand.

Brown describes it as writing a speech in a vacuum, which poses significant - and perilous - challenges.

Image caption Marco Rubio is remembered more for taking a drink of water than what he said in his rebuttal

"There's no doubt this is one of the toughest jobs in politics," she says. "I really don't think there is any more difficult position, especially if you're a newly elected official, to be in."

The rebuttal format - giving a speech alone to a television camera - versus Obama's oration in front of an audience, has tripped up numerous Republican politicians in recent years.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Florida Senator Marco Rubio both tackled rebuttal speeches with mixed results.

"Bobby Jindal [in 2009] didn't really work with the camera very well," says Donna Hoffman, professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. "He looked very startled and I think it was very difficult to get past some of his mannerisms."

Rubio fared little better in 2013 when he paused mid-speech for a refreshment.

"What we remember Marco Rubio's response for was his drink of water," she adds. "What did he say? Nobody knows but they know he took a drink of water in the middle of it."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Robert McDonnell's once promising career is now over after being found guilty of corruption

Other conservatives have watched their political aspirations flounder after delivering their rebuttal speeches.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell gave his party's rebuttal speech in 2010, only to later be convicted of public corruption and sentenced to two years incarceration.

He has been ordered to report to prison by 9 February.

Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan saw his profile soar amid his 2011 rebuttal speech, only to later lose in his 2012 vice-presidential run for the White House with presidential candidate Mitt Romney. This week, he ruled himself out as a contender for 2016.

Image copyright US Pool
Image caption Cathy McMorris's 2014 rebuttal was regarded as smooth and without drama

But, it isn't all bad news for conservatives brave enough to tackle the tough task.

Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers "did really well" in her 2014 attempt, Hoffman says.

Even amid such pressure, being asked to give the rebuttal speech is still a significant honour, says Brown.

"Your party is saying to you 'We trust you to do this really hard job and we really see you as being in one way or another the new face of the party'," she explains.

Besides, even if Ernst falls prey to a pratfall, "the good news for her is she's so young on the national stage that she'll be cut a lot of slack", says Gage.

"She doesn't have to run for re-election for a while so if she were to have a misstep, she'd have a chance to make it a distant memory," she concludes. "I think it's a huge opportunity. It will be what she makes of it."

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