Shake Hands, Hold Babies -- and Look Good

As Election Day looms, voters are taking a closer look at candidates -- from head to toe.

While a politician's appearance has been prominent since Richard Nixon and JFK had the first televised presidential debate, today's political sartorial style is perhaps more influential than ever.

"If a politician wants to win, they really need to pay attention to their clothing, their demeanor and posture," said Sherry Maysonave, a communication image consultant in Texas.

Traditional political consultants agree style helps make the man, but say a candidate's stance on issues is more important than the color of his or her suit.

"It's an element of a campaign but not a major focus," said John Brennan, a political consultant in Washington, D.C. According to Brennan, image consultants primarily "make sure the politicians don't embarrass themselves by the way they look."

But navigating the fashion landscape isn't as easy at it seems. For instance, a candidate who pays too much attention to image can suffer a public backlash.

Al Gore was ridiculed during the 2000 presidential campaign when it was reported he had hired feminist Naomi Wolf, who told him to wear earth tones in a bid to appeal to women voters.

The most common mistake candidates make, according to Maysonave, is when they dress too casually in an effort to relate to the common man. "They need to be a step up from their audience," she said. "People have expectations of their leaders."

But even the fail-safe suit can be problematic, she said, warning politicians not to look out-of-touch while touring a farm, for example.

But when an elegant suit is cut right, it can mimic minor plastic surgery for candidates who need sculpting -- in body and political message, said Stefano Tonchi, fashion creative director of Esquire.

"A well-tailored suit can improve the way you present yourself, give you more shoulders, more chest and shape your waist," he said. "A sloppy suit expresses sloppiness of the program."

Plus, a smart suit can make people look younger and more fit, which can help a candidate appeal to new generations of voters.

"With a young voter, appearance is very important," said Brennan. "The first thing they look at is their appearance, and then listen to what they have to say."

And wardrobe differences can help candidates reflect their message. In Minnesota, for example, the four gubernatorial candidates distinguish themselves with subtle choices.

Republican Tim Pawlenty often dons a blue shirt with an open neck, a look that's part Silicon Valley -- he works for an Internet business -- and a reflection of his blue-collar beginnings.

Green Party candidate Ken Pentel is apt to wear suits, signaling he's no extremist. Democrat Roger Moe is often crisply dressed in Ralph Lauren, but avoids stuffy white dress shirts.

And the Independence Party's Tim Penny likes to have his sleeves rolled up and tie loosened.

As for female candidates, experts say women have far more choices to make when facing the closet.

"For men there is a kind of a uniform, but for women there are so many variations that it gets very risky," said Tonchi who thinks female candidates can feel free to go for a sexy style.

"More and more, women are using the power of the body and sexuality," he said. "This hasn't been used enough by women in politics."

But Brennan thinks relying on sex appeal can detract from a woman's credibility and alienate voters.

"If they play it too fashionable, too stylish then you get into a taste issue that can turn off some voters," Brennan said. "It's the older conservative people who actually come and vote and you don't want to turn this off with a fashion statement."

But he isn't suggesting smothering personal taste. "You don't want to mess with certain trademark looks," he said, citing former New York congresswoman Bella Abzug, who was known for wearing a hat.

In the end, during a close race, whether the candidate is a man or a woman, a distinctive style can make a difference.

"Appearances always say a lot about the person," Tonchi emphasized, "especially when you want to make a statement."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.