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gender & sexuality | government | media criticism selection 2004

Election is turning into a duel of the manly men

Just in From USA Today...women want a macho man to be president to protect us from terror. interestng use of gender in mainstream press.
They talk guns, they talk teams, they talk tough. You'd think they were running for top jock. Or maybe leader of the free world.

It's macho time in the presidential race. The best man could be the one who seems more manly.

Political analysts say they've never seen anything quite like the tough-guy competition between President Bush (news - web sites) and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (news - web sites). They point to two reasons: Millions of hunters and fishermen live in the battleground states each candidate needs to win, and voters everywhere are haunted by 9/11.

"It's about getting men's votes, but this year it's also about getting women's votes," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says. "What in the past seemed too arrogant, too macho, women really like this cycle. They want someone who will do what it takes to protect America."

David Paletz, a political scientist at Duke University, says both candidates are trying to emulate Ronald Reagan (news - web sites) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (news - web sites). "There's a very narrow notion of strength in this country," Paletz says. "It's all connected to militarism: kill animals, chop wood with an ax."

The images from the 2004 campaign certainly bear that out. There's the Everyman series: Bush cutting brush, Kerry tossing a football, the pair aiming rifles and falling off their bikes. And the aristocracy series: Bush fishing in his own lake in Texas and off his father's dock in Maine, Kerry windsurfing and snowboarding near his wife's vacation retreats. And the military series: Bush with troops all over the world, Kerry with veterans all over the country, both of them with generals galore.

There are interviews with Sports Illustrated and Field & Stream. Excursions to shooting ranges and Cabela's outfitter stores. Prominent displays of manly vehicles: Bush in his pickup and on an aircraft carrier, Kerry on his Harley and piloting a plane.

"They haven't tried a tank yet," Lake says dryly. It's a reference to Democrat Michael Dukakis' ill-fated 1988 attempt to look tough. The consensus: The helmet made him look like Snoopy.

Even a momentary verbal slip can reverberate, as Kerry found out recently when he referred to Green Bay's Lambeau Field as Lambert Field. That set off Packers fans in the critical state of Wisconsin and teed up a laugh line for Bush. "I've got some advice for him," Bush said of his opponent a few days later on a visit to West Allis, Wis. "If someone offers you a cheesehead, don't say you want some wine. Just put it on your head and take a seat at Lambeau Field."

Targeting sportsmen

Democrats start from a perceived toughness deficit. In 2000, 53% of men voted for Bush vs. 42% for Democrat Al Gore (news - web sites). Six in 10 gun owners voted for Bush, compared with 36% who went for Gore. Some analysts say Gore's support for gun-control measures helped Gore lose New Hampshire, Arkansas, West Virginia, Missouri and his native Tennessee - any one of which would have won him the presidency.

Much of this year's macho posturing is aimed at "white men who live in economically challenged areas of swing states," non-partisan pollster Brad Coker says. "You can zero right in on the states: West Virginia, southern Ohio, Arkansas and Missouri."

Both candidates are trying to establish a comfort level with those voters in order to find an audience for their main message. In Bush's case, Coker says, it's "I'm tough on terrorists." For Kerry, it's "I'm a macho guy, too ... plus I can do better for you on the economy."

The powerhouse lobbying group in the race is the National Rifle Association, which has nearly 4 million members and a $20 million budget for ads and other political activities. The group is running a 30-minute infomercial about Bush and Kerry on local network affiliates in seven or eight battleground states.

The NRA, which has endorsed Bush, calls Kerry "the most anti-gun presidential nominee in United States history" because of his votes for gun-control legislation. Kerry supports mandatory child-safety locks on handguns; Bush does not. Bush would protect gunmakers from liability lawsuits; Kerry would not. Kerry and Bush both would close a loophole that lets people buy guns at gun shows without a background check. Kerry voted for the 10-year ban on certain assault weapons that expired this month; Bush said he would sign an extension but did not lobby Congress to send him one.

Kerry said last year that he doesn't want to be the candidate of the NRA. However, like Bush, he does want to be the candidate of gun-owning sportsmen.

John Norris, Kerry's national field director, says there are 7.5 million hunters and 20.5 million anglers in about 20 battleground states. Both campaigns are aggressively going after this "hook-and-bullet" bloc. There are "Sportsmen for Kerry" and "Sportsmen for Bush" groups in each swing state. Kerry, a hunter and crack shot, is even circulating a "Sportsmen's Bill of Rights" guaranteeing "the right to own firearms."

On another level, the two men are trying to use hunting, fishing and other sports to convey to voters that they are average guys who understand their lives. Never mind that Kerry and Bush are wealthy Ivy Leaguers, one a lawyer and son of a diplomat, the other a former baseball team owner and son of a former president. They eat hoagies. They wear jeans. They like to be - need to be - outdoors.

Democrats generally have the edge when it comes to who voters believe is more in touch with their problems. In a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll this month, 48% said Kerry "cares about the needs of people like me" compared with 41% who said that about Bush.

Kerry often talks to voters about how he'd solve everyday problems such as rising health care costs. And unlike Bush, a teetotaler who admits he once had a drinking problem, Kerry drinks beer. He even downed a local brew, Iron City, with steelworkers recently at a bar in a Steubenville, Ohio. But he is handicapped by a wealthy lifestyle and hobbies such as windsurfing and playing classical guitar. Bush, with his verbal gaffes and scrubby ranch getaway, has a more approachable air.

"Bush comes across as a guy's guy, someone you'd want to hang out with, have a beer and maybe a cigar with, with a fishing rod in your hand," says Republican Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

He sums up the mano a mano contest this way: "Blue jeans with big belt buckle vs. the chinos properly creased with a windbreaker."

Lake puts it another way: "We're the only party that's had a candidate walk around with a fully automatic weapon in his hand. All those Vietnam rifles were fully automatic."

Plain talk and swagger

Bush's cowboy boots and hat are broken in and grimy. The big belt buckles really are part of his wardrobe. The Texas twang is for real, although if you listen to him say the word "rather," you can still hear a hint of the Connecticut-born president's New England heritage. For reasons that most people probably find hard to comprehend, he does enjoy hacking away at brush on his Texas ranch with a chainsaw.

Bush, 58, has made his good-old-boy nature vital to his image. "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called walking," he said in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. "Now and then I come across as a little too blunt."

The strut and the plain talk may help him connect with the white men who are his political base, but they also have caused trouble. When he helped pilot a Navy S-3B Viking onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, sauntered around in a jumpsuit and declared an end to major combat in Iraq (news - web sites), the images seemed bound for his campaign ads.

But the violence in Iraq grew worse, and the footage ended up in Kerry TV ads mocking Bush instead.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush flexed his rhetorical muscles when a reporter asked him if he planned to make al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) pay for the attacks. "I want justice," he said. "There's an old poster out West, I recall, that says, 'Wanted: dead or alive.' "

Bush's wife, Laura, told him to knock off the taunts. But Bush did it again in July 2003 when U.S. troops were attacked by militants in Iraq. "There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there," Bush said. "My answer is 'bring them on.' "

Bush, who uses a treadmill on Air Force One during long trips, is the first presidential candidate to run ads in health clubs. He was once an avid runner, but aging knees put an end to that hobby. Now he works out aboard a mountain bike. He loves to fish, and he hunts and golfs occasionally.

When he's campaigning, he talks about his pastimes, especially when he's in rural parts of the Midwest, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. In May, he stopped at a distribution center for Cabela's, which sells outdoor gear, in Prairie du Chien, Wis. "They told me I was coming to Cabela's, and I said, already, fine, I'm looking for some power worms. I like to be in hunting and fishing country," Bush said.

Sometimes, Bush's passion for the outdoors merges with - and becomes a sort of political code for - his support for the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms and is an important issue among rural voters. "As a sportsman, I understand that gun ownership carries serious responsibilities," Bush said in July in Cambridge, Ohio.

As useful as it might be politically, Bush's passion for outdoor activity is not exaggerated for campaign season.

"When you're running or when you're fishing or when you're working with your hands, you tend to think about other things than your work," he told USA TODAY during his first month-long vacation at his ranch. "It mellows me out."

Most valuable president?

Millions saw Kerry onstage at his convention with the men who served in Vietnam on his Navy swift boat crew. Hundreds of thousands by now have heard his theme song - Bruce Springsteen's No Surrender - and incessant vows to "fight" for the White House.

Only a few hundred saw him demonstrate his softball prowess one summer evening in Taylor, Mich. The autoworkers were playing Team Kerry - firefighters plus one 60-year-old White House hopeful in khakis. The other players looked to be half his age and twice the muscle mass.

But Kerry at second base made all the outs in one of the three innings and scored twice - both times running full out and crashing into the backstop next to a "Believe in America" banner advertising his post-convention tour. "MVP!" came the chant from the stands. "Most Valuable President," intoned the game announcer.

Sometimes the sports shtick works. And then there are the times it doesn't - like a couple of hours earlier, when Kerry forgot he'd crossed the border from Ohio to Michigan and started praising the Buckeyes. Or recently during the Republican convention, when Democrats cringed at news photos of him windsurfing off Nantucket (a rich person's sport at a rich person's resort).

Kerry will never be Joe Six-Pack. His bike is too expensive, his Lycra sports outfits too bright, some of his hobbies - skiing, snowboarding, windsurfing, stunt flying - out of reach for most people.

But this is also a guy who travels with staples any American would recognize: a football, a basketball, two baseball bats, four baseball gloves and 10 baseballs. A lifelong athlete who cleared his head with a bike ride the day he accepted the Democratic nomination, he has played ice hockey on the campaign trail, shot pheasant and skeet, and ridden a Harley onto NBC's Tonight Showset.

To woo sportsmen, Kerry stresses his love of fishing and hunting since childhood and his commitment to preserving fish and wildlife habitat. It's unacceptable, he says at almost every campaign stop, that water pollution means you can't eat the fish you catch in 28 states.

In an emblematic moment this month in West Virginia, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told a labor rally that Kerry is "not going to take your gun away, because he loves to hunt." Then he gave Kerry a rifle made by UMW members. Kerry held it aloft and pronounced it a "beautiful piece."

That day, there was no shooting. But in Iowa last fall, when he was given little chance of winning the Democratic nomination, Kerry killed the first two pheasants that flew into sight with one shot each.

"I would not put that at the top of the list of what turned things around," says Norris, who was Kerry's Iowa director. "But we did reproduce pictures (of the shooting trip) and put them in union halls."