Sexual politics is back for the quadrennial rerun. Not since Al Gore summoned Naomi Wolf to choose his clothes to conjure up an alpha male image - and instead made him look like a wimp - has the macho image been so important in a political campaign.
It's not exactly the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but with lots of newsprint and air to fill, the great organs of the media have begun to depict the fight between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry as a Saturday-night scrap between two cowboys at the Silver Slipper Saloon.
One cowpoke may seem more at home in the saloon, albeit sipping sarsaparilla, and the other in a salon on Beacon Hill (if not on the Champs-Elysees), but it's the testosterone level real or imagined that's getting the attention.
Bush-in-boots chops wood and waves the starter's flag at the Daytona 500. The senator rides a Harley hog onto the stage of the "Tonight Show" and makes a photo-op of a pheasant shoot.
"When you have a war going on, the macho factor will prevail," says Joan Hoff, a professor of history at Montana State University and former president of the Center for the Study of the President. "Bush feels it's to his advantage to keep foreign policy as a major issue. But when it comes up, I think you are going to see a lot of (speculation about) 'Who's tougher than who.'"
Kerry didn't exactly apologize for calling the Bushies "lying crooks." A tough old Beacon Hill cowpoke never apologizes, never explains. An apology would reveal a feminine side and nobody's buying sensitive alpha males this season.
"There is no doubt that one of the things Bush has going for him, even with some people who otherwise wouldn't like him, is that he seems decisive and a leader," says Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington and gender expert, whatever that may be. "For many people that links to maleness." Does that mean the Brits dug Maggie Thatcher for her "maleness," too?
Of course, every campaign appropriates whatever vocabulary that works, and if Americans aren't buying sensitivity this year, we're still obsessed with "gender politics."