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."
Not so long ago, the alpha male had morphed into the beta bum, or the gamma girl, but then came 9/11. A war requires a warrior hero. The macho image of George Bush has changed since that endless election night in 2000. At first he was more Alan Ladd in "Shane" or Gary Cooper in "High Noon," the reluctant fighter up to the task of taking on the meanest man in the saloon, but not until he was challenged beyond turning the other cheek.
Sept. 11 and the Iraq war transformed him into the righteous aggressor, striking first to cut off the first of the heads of the hydra-headed "axis of evil," out to destroy an enemy before it was fully prepared to wreak wholesale havoc on the civilized world.
Democrats think John Kerry can beat George Bush because his heroics on the Mekong River give him warrior credentials. He's a Massachusetts pol who knows better than to climb into a tank, but if he wanted to, he could pull it off.
But Kerry has a different problem. He can be painted with what one writer calls the "priss brush," a fastidiousness at odds with barking bombast. He has appropriated the phrase, "Bring it on," but to the point that he has drawn himself into a cartoon.
The French are gaga for the senator not for his studly manliness but for the effete sophisticate they imagine they see just below the surface of the skin of the cowboy. "Kerry is the closest thing that you will have to a French politician, with a certain diplomacy, a certain elegance," says Constance Borde, the chairwoman of Democrats Abroad.
The trend-setting Democrats at home may not be so taken with all those nuances, although they can't say it out loud. Tina Brown, who regards herself as one of the most beautiful people in New York, took the measure of her media Democratic pals at a celebration for the Rock and Roll Museum and found them not so wild about their man.
Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, trying to put the best face on the candidate, challenged her: "Whose values do you want?" he asked. "Bruce Springsteen's or Wayne Newton's?"
But the trouble with that, she wrote in The Washington Post, is that "Kerry ain't Bruce Springsteen."
She could only retort with a famous analogy stolen from Mark Twain. "Well, you know," she wrote, "Kerry is like Wagner. Better than it sounds."