NEW YORK – Whether the preference is for pretty boys, distinguished older gentlemen or a man in uniform, this presidential election has a guy for every taste.
Noting the success of sweet-faced Sen. John Edwards (search) with women in the Iowa caucuses, and the popularity of gracefully graying former Gen. Wesley Clark (search) with women over 45 — including Madonna — experts are wondering what effect sex appeal will have on election 2004.
“It’s brains, integrity, how you look, how you take care of yourself — the whole package. Human beings are human beings. We seek in our leaders the same qualities we seek in our personal lives,” said Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus.
“If a woman were (still) running, certainly the same logic would apply,” she added.
Edwards and Clark should get an early boost from their good looks, but it might not a lasting one, Jacobus told Foxnews.com.
“At this point, we still don’t know a lot about Clark — he can ride on his attractiveness initially, but just like in real life it won’t be enough for the long haul. Edwards has the beefcake factor, and in early primaries and caucuses this will help. But ultimately we have to be ‘dating’ a guy a while before we make our final determination,” she said.
Indeed, ever since Sept. 26, 1960, when Sen. John Kennedy went head-to-head with Vice President Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential debate, politicians have been aware that appearance counts. Studies showed that most viewers who watched the famous "5 o'clock shadow" debate on TV said that tan, healthy-looking Kennedy beat thin, pale Nixon, but those who heard it on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner.
Nixon ultimately lost the bid for the presidency.
Like all beauty, however, the appeal of the candidates is in the eye of the beholder. Democratic strategist Susan Estrich said she thinks that if the race comes down to John Kerry (search) — the current front-runner in New Hampshire — against President Bush, it will be a tough matchup of "two very attractive guys."
"It's a question of what's your type? I myself would be afraid to go for a John Kerry-type — he's known he was good-looking since he was eight years old. You'd have to be very confident. Bush, on the other hand, has been married 35 years to a very nice woman. Kerry is better looking, but every woman over 35 knows that you'd be better off marrying Bush."
Estrich also thinks height will play a role.
"Bush is tall ... the problem with Edwards is he's short — so is Dean. As for Clark, a general can be short, because he's a general, so it doesn't serve as a metaphor for any weakness."
Clinical sexologist Dr. Ava Cadell thinks physical magnetism can push a qualified candidate over the edge.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), in spite of the [sexual harassment] allegations, was articulate, accomplished and a star with sex appeal. I definitely think it has a lot to do with it, although the candidate must also be intelligent and have good energy. But what America really goes for is an action hero. Kerry is a war hero.”
That said, Cadell said she thinks North Carolina Sen. Edwards will beat Kerry in the race for the Democratic nomination.
“Edwards is good-looking, cute and charming — he has that southern drawl like Clinton, and he has that JFK thing going on.”
Amy Sohn, who writes the Naked City column for New York magazine, said she agrees that Edwards has a way with the ladies.
"I personally think Dean is the best-looking, because I saw a picture of what he looked like in college on the Internet, and he had a very nice compact figure. But what we saw in Iowa was a lot of women liked Edwards’ softness. He’s very good-looking, very dashing, probably subconsciously reminds women of Bill Clinton. He has a sweetness to him — he’s refrained from some of the negative campaigning."
Sohn added that Clark's "man in a uniform" status will up his appeal, and that Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) has some "appealing boyishness."
But she doesn’t want to overemphasize the stud factor in the election.
“It certainly matters what the candidates look like — but women are intelligent and capable of making intelligent choices, not just who’s the best-looking. It’s looks and charisma in combination with positions on the issues.”
Jacobus said she agrees that in the end, the race will come down to integrity, character and the issues.
“In this media age, sex appeal matters more than it used to, but I don’t think more than any other areas. In the final contest, the American people won’t turn on Bush just because Clark bats his eyelashes or Edwards flips his hair."