WASHINGTON – It's not easy being beautiful — not for a politician, at least. Just ask John Edwards (search). The Democratic vice presidential candidate endures endless joshing about his unofficial title as America's "sexiest politician." This fascination with his youthful looks shines a spotlight on a potential weakness — limited experience in government.
Voters might feel the one-term senator from North Carolina is too green to round out a presidential ticket, especially if they believe he's just window-dressing.
Republicans are eager to make that case.
"Some people say that Senator Edwards was chosen in part because of his boyish good looks," President Bush said in a speech this week. Bush joked about the prospects for getting his own running mate — the bald and bespectacled Dick Cheney (search) — onto "People" magazine's sexiest list, then extolled Cheney's lengthy government experience and national security expertise, drawing a contrast to Edwards.
Some on the right have taken a cattier approach to belittling Edwards, dubbing him "the Breck girl."
They aren't the only ones suggesting gravitas and good hair rarely go together, however.
Newspaper columnists toss around terms like pretty boy. A national TV interviewer asked Edwards, 51, to respond to worries that he is "too cute." Even running mate John Kerry's wife got into the act.
"I have to say that John Edwards is beautiful," Teresa Heinz Kerry (search) joked at a fund-raiser. "And my husband's very smart."
Edwards sometimes acknowledges the issue with self-deprecating humor. He opened his remarks to a dinner for journalists and politicians with the line, "I know what you're thinking. He's better-looking in person."
But he dismisses any suggestion that looks could kill his credibility. "The American people are good judges of character. I think they go right past the superficial," Edwards told CNN's Larry King.
Can a candidate be too handsome to be taken seriously?
"The issue is really how much substance there is behind the pretty face," said Joel K. Goldstein, a scholar of the vice presidency at St. Louis University Law School.
Dan Quayle, another senator considered easy on the eyes, was the surprise choice for the Republicans' No. 2 spot in 1988. Quayle stumbled in the media glare and soon found himself ridiculed as the political equivalent of a dumb blonde.
His attempt to recover by comparing his qualifications to those of John F. Kennedy — America's most famously dashing and youthful president — was crushed by Lloyd Bentsen's famous debate line, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
"In Vice President Quayle's case, what many people found disturbing was that he seemed to have been put on the ticket simply because he was an attractive, new candidate," Goldstein said.
Nonetheless, George H.W. Bush won the White House, with Quayle in tow. Vice presidents rarely make or break a campaign.
Edwards won't be dismissed as readily as Quayle because he already has convinced many people he is "ready for prime time" through his own presidential primary campaign, Goldstein predicted.
So, if good looks don't harm his credibility, could they help attract votes — especially women's votes?
"Every time a good-looking man emerges as a candidate this question is asked," said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "I know of no data, no evidence at all to show that a man's good looks affect the way women vote."
But it appears Edwards isn't above capitalizing on sex appeal.
At campaign rallies, he often walks on stage in a suit, then slowly removes his coat and proceeds to roll up his shirt-sleeves slowly, almost teasingly, drawing "ooohs" of approval from women in the audience. "He's hot!" is a commonly heard phrase.
At a joint appearance, Kerry followed Edwards on stage and mimicked his coat-off, sleeves-up routine, to hearty laughter from the crowd.
Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, says history offers little evidence that voters will swoon.
"Yes, we do from time to time elect some quite good-looking people; John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were considered good-looking," he said.
"We also elect a fair number of people no one would say were good looking — Richard Nixon, Calvin Coolidge," said Hess, who worked in the Nixon administration.
Looks might have an effect akin to celebrity endorsements, he said. "Are you going to really say you voted for somebody because Barbra Streisand or Tom Selleck endorsed them? Pretty much not. But maybe it affects some people."
Besides, who's to say who looks best to America's voters? "People" magazine doesn't speak for the nation, after all.
"My wife thinks Kerry is better-looking than Edwards," noted Hess.
That's what she told her husband, anyway.