It was once a late-night comedy riff, comparing a pair of Latin he-men. "¿Quien es mas macho, Fernando Lamas o Ricardo Montalban?"
The gag on the preening masculinity of two aging stars had its day, then faded away. But an increasingly ornery presidential election season might resurrect the question. To wit: "¿Quien es mas macho, George Bush o John Kerry?"
If it's not Kerry tossing a football across an airport tarmac, it's President Bush stomping around his Texas ranch in denim and cowboy boots. Bush waves the starter's flag at NASCAR's Daytona 500. Kerry blasts away at pheasant with a double-barreled shotgun.
In a campaign that has seen candidate Howard Dean infamously appeal to "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," many political scientists, historians and gender experts say that a good portion of the presidential image-making in 2004 will center on masculinity.
Driving the paternal imperative, they say, is the anxiety many Americans feel because of the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorist attacks at home.
"When you have a war going on, usually the macho factor will prevail," said Joan Hoff, a Montana State University history professor and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. "Bush feels it's to his advantage to keep foreign policy as a major issue. But when that comes up, I think you are going to see a lot of 'Who is tougher than whom.' "
The televised images of machismo may be as overt as Bush powering along the Maine coast in his father's cigarette boat or Kerry exchanging slap shots and forechecks on the hockey rink. But the manly theme also will be cast in more subtle and euphemistic terms, as pundits talk about the candidates' "authenticity," "decisiveness" and "toughness."
"There is no doubt that one of the things that Bush has going for him, even with some people who otherwise wouldn't like him, is that he seems decisive and a leader," said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist and gender expert. "For many people that links to maleness."
But both the president and the senator from Massachusetts need to be careful that their embrace of traditional masculine roles does not become forced, Schwartz said, lest they become perceived in that most un-macho of roles -- the poseur. Think Michael Dukakis in 1988, clad in an oversized helmet and perched atop a tank.
American politicians have not been above feminizing their opponents dating back to the era of powdered wigs, playing on the stereotypical notion that only the "manly" can lead.
Some critics of the day called Thomas Jefferson "womanish." In 1840, President Martin Van Buren -- accused of wearing a corset and taking too many baths -- lost to William Henry Harrison. The challenger purportedly took care not to be seen in the tub.
Adlai E. Stevenson found himself belittled as "Adelaide" in two unsuccessful 1950s presidential confrontations with Dwight D. Eisenhower, the retired war hero. And in 1984, onetime movie cowboy Ronald Reagan made swift work of Walter F. Mondale, who was labeled a "quiche eater" by Republican true believers.
Bush and Kerry appear to come by their macho naturally. At Yale University, both won admission to the exclusive, secret society "Skull and Bones," then open only to men. Bush was the party guy -- drinking hard and later quipping about his relative disdain for academics. Kerry played two sports at Yale and volunteered for the Navy, which sent him to Vietnam.
In adulthood, Bush has taken pride in his fitness, once challenging members of the press corps to try to keep up as he turned 7-minute miles in 100-degree Texas heat.
Kerry, a licensed pilot, took the controls of a helicopter during a campaign swing in Iowa last fall. When blessed with more free time, he's been spotted rollerblading up Beacon Hill in his native Boston and catching big air while kite surfing off Cape Cod.
Beware the 'Priss Brush'
Both Bush and Kerry have been witness, up close, to the potential danger of being painted with what one magazine writer called "the priss brush."
Bush's father had to go to great lengths to overcome the "wimp" label in his 1988 run for the White House, despite the fact he once captained the Yale baseball team and flew a torpedo bomber in World War II. Al Gore suffered a similar taint in 2000 when it was revealed that feminist author Naomi Wolfe advised him on what colors to wear.
Well aware of the many Democratic presidential contenders destroyed by the notion they were soft, Kerry has said repeatedly he's "a fighter." He even co-opted Bush's challenge to Iraqi insurgents -- "Bring it on!" -- to challenge the president to a debate over national security.
Bush has equally pragmatic political reasons for sending reminders that he's a traditional man's man, political analysts say. He's trying to appeal to his electoral base, white men, who favored him by a whopping 59% to 37% over Gore in 2000. (Four percent voted for Ralph Nader.)