In March, an aspiring Republican presidential couple -- Rudolph W. and Judith Nathan Giuliani -- appeared in a fashion layout in Harper's Bazaar that accompanied an interview with Mrs. Giuliani. The most striking thing about the feature, a coming-out of sorts for Judith Giuliani, was their pose.
Sitting on the arm of her husband's chair, eyes closed, she tipped her head down, caressed his face and planted a kiss that looked like a precursor to something steamier.
"Rudy's a very, very romantic guy," Judith Giuliani told the magazine. "We love watching 'Sleepless in Seattle.' Can you imagine my big testosteronefactor husband doing that?"
A couple of months later, after seeing a photograph of presumed presidential hopeful Fred Thompson's much younger wife, Jeri Kehn Thompson, in a low-cut gown that would be modest on a Hollywood red carpet but could be shocking at a Washington social event, MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough quipped, "Do you think -- think she works the pole?" (He had been discussing women who use stripper poles in their exercise routines.)
Not long after that, Cindy McCain, wife of presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), gave Fox News talk show host Greta Van Susteren a tour of the couple's new Phoenix condo. Mrs. McCain wore a pink blouse with a plunging neckline, and heavy makeup that would not have been out of place at a black-tie event.
In this long, hot campaign season, intimations of sexuality are sprouting like wildflowers along the road to the White House. Not that the commingling of sex and politics is anything new, but for what seems to be the first time in memory, voters are being confronted with questions that don't usually break the surface: Just how sexy is a first lady allowed to be? And what constitutes an appropriate display of affection between candidates and their spouses?
With a nominating field full of older men and younger wives, experts say that a youthful, even sexy wife offers a none-too-subtle message about the vitality of the candidate.
Not since Al Gore's ostentatious lip lock with Tipper at the 2000 Democratic National Convention has sexuality-as-strategy raised its head in quite so insistent a fashion.
"What's going on reflects what's happening in the larger culture, a culture increasingly focused on young, attractive women and blatant sexuality, on display for all to appreciate," said Elizabeth Sherman, a political sociologist and Democrat who is married to former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. "The candidate's wife is a strategic asset. How are you going to deploy that asset?"
Though voters may profess to evaluate candidates on their policies, Scarborough's racy comment revealed an attitude that, for better or worse, is always simmering.
"Sexuality has this unconscious power," said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist who believes that the looks and interactions of political couples send powerful messages. "It goes past the rational brain and goes into the emotional circuit. It's one of those visceral things where voters say one thing and think another."
Schwartz said that although older women might be put off by the May-December aspect of some of these marriages, younger men might be impressed. "The men say, 'What a guy!' and women say, 'What an ego!' "
For the record, Thompson is 24 years older than Jeri. She is a political professional who has worked for the Republican National Committee and as a media consultant for a Washington law firm.
McCain is 18 years older than Cindy, Giuliani 11 years older than Judith. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, a Democratic hopeful, is 18 years older than his wife, Jackie. The prize for greatest age gap, however, goes to Democratic contender Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who is 31 years older than his 29-year-old wife, Elizabeth.
As often is the case in a campaign, let alone a marriage, it is hard to tell when spontaneity ends and calculation begins. Public displays of affection are no exception.
Robert Watson, director of American studies at Lynn University in Florida, recalled that when President George H.W. Bush had sagging poll numbers during his 1992 reelection campaign, his advisors begged him to show some affection to his popular wife, Barbara, on the trail.
"He just wouldn't do it," Watson said. "He had that cold Yankee demeanor."
(And we all know how the election turned out: America went with the guy who held hands with his wife on national TV as he admitted he'd "caused pain" in his marriage.)
In 1998, when President Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky was about to drive the nation into a paroxysm of partisanship and eventually, impeachment, the Clintons were photographed, paparazzi-style, on a beach in the Virgin Islands, in bathing suits, waltzing together on the sand.
It was an apparently tender marital moment, and because he was preparing to be deposed in Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit, many believed it was not spontaneous.