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Is Mitch Daniels too short and balding to be president? Are Haley Barbour, Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich too fat? Mitt Romney too handsome? Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann too thin and beautiful?
Granted, it's a little early to know who's actually running and whether Republicans will nominate someone with a pretty face, low body-mass-index, great hair and above-average stature, or instead go for ideology sans cosmetology, and let policy trump physique.
But with the first GOP debate of the 2012 campaign set for May 2, and with height, weight and attractiveness already being discussed by some potential contenders and pundits, these are questions worth examining.
"In the TV age, in the social media age, the presence of a candidate in photos and videos counts a lot," Josh King, President Bill Clinton's expert on visuals, told Politics Daily. "Substance always matters but it needs to be put in the package. It's not whether a person is tall or diminutive, but instead has a charisma and substance as delivered on the stump that connects with the voters. If you think back to '92, the fitter and trimmer guy has been elected, and if you need a tie-breaker, it's also the younger guy."
Republican political consultant Mark McKinnon told me: "What you want today is something, anything, that makes you stand out. Voters want authenticity. And they increasingly prefer candidates who, like themselves, have flaws. People are suspicious of perfection or model looks. This is good news for the Chris Christies, bad news for the Mitt Romneys."
As for Palin and Bachmann, "women may have some latent jealousy, scratch their heads and wonder, 'They have birthed five kids are still size-2, lustrous brunettes?' " said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. But rather than own the envy, these voters may mask their resentment as ideological disdain. "I'm old enough to remember the 'don't hate me because I'm beautiful' " ads for Pantene hair products from the '80s, she added.
For the record, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegged the average weight of American males over age 20 at nearly 198 pounds and height at about 5 feet 9½ inches. Women averaged close to 165 pounds and stood just under 5 feet 4 inches.
Since 1900, the tallest presidential candidates have enjoyed a definite advantage, winning 19 of 28 elections. Those stats reversed an earlier trend: Between 1789 to 1924, the shorter guys declared victory in 15 of 26 races.
Weight is another factor, and it could carry a good news-bad news double standard: Voters seem to be more accepting of fat men than fat women seeking office, according to University of Missouri researchers.
But even political experts seem divided on the presumed advantages of a lanky frame, a nice face and the visible fruits of girth control.
Perhaps aware of the pitfalls of perfection, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor now mulling a second White House run, makes fun of his tall, handsome self by saying, "I'm the guy in the photo that comes with your picture frame."
Christie, who appears to be the largest presence in the GOP field -- despite recent assertions that he's not ready for a 2012 race -- won some MSNBC pundit praise Thursday night. Host Chris Matthews cited the New Jersey governor's "commanding presence," and Newsweek's Jonathan Alter noted "there are a lot of overweight people out there; they don't consider it to be a negative."
[Now, it turns out Christie now works out with a trainer three times a week and watches his diet, reports the Associated Press."Slowly but surely I'm taking the weight off" for the sake of his four children, age 7 to 17. "I need to be around for them."]
Don Imus joked before the 2009 election that Christie should set a better example for his obese constituents, the Republican candidate shot back: "I am setting an example, Don. We have to spur our economy. Dunkin' Donuts, International House of Pancakes -- those people need to work, too."
Other pols have also weighed in on the subject.
Last year, when the portly Barbour was asked about a possible challenge to the tall, thin Barack Obama, the Mississippi governor quipped, "If you see me losing 40 pounds, that means I'm either running or have cancer."
Since then, he has "lost some weight. He hasn't lost 40 pounds. He might be halfway there. So read into that what you will," a Barbour adviser recently told Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence.
Self-described "recovering foodaholic" Mike Huckabee, who once topped 300 pounds but shed 110 of them after a 2003 diabetes diagnosis, has since bulked up a bit. The former Arkansas governor-turned-Fox-News-commentator and radio talker, during a 2009 trip to Oklahoma, lamented his "constant struggle to find decent things to eat on the road and not get terribly messed up with the same old habits." He later blamed a foot injury for cutting into his jogging routine.
But having lost so much weight may give Huckabee -- who hasn't yet said if he'll run again for president -- an edge over his chunkier rivals.
"It's a little bit hard to talk about fiscal discipline when you appear not to have a lot of self-discipline," Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told me. "Most of our presidents in modern times have been taller than usual or fitter than usual: Lyndon Johnson, both Bushes, Reagan, Clinton, Obama were all over six feet. On the other hand, Americans want to identify with a president, and it seems so many of us are short and fat that it might be helpful."
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, no one's idea of a buff jock, took a swipe at the current White House occupant, who is heavily into sports. "What we need is a president, not an athlete," Gingrich said after a speech to the Southern Leadership Conference in New Orleans. "Shooting three-point shots may be clever, but it doesn't put anybody to work."
Not surprisingly, the focus on size is offensive to many, including the National Assocciation to Advance Fat Acceptance. "Basically what happens when you only look at a person's weight, you are asking the public to make a decision on cosmetics rather than competence," Frances White, co-chair of the all-volunteer group, said in an e-mail. "The person's total qualifications should be examined, not just their appearance."
True enough, but "potential candidates would be remiss to ignore such stereotypes in contemplating a run for political office," says Elizabeth Miller, a political science professor who co-wrote the University of Missouri study that found a double standard for overweight women and men.
When shown doctored photos of ficticious fat candidates, participants assigned higher negatives to fat women in such key areas as reliability, dependability, honesty and competence. Once women no longer fit "the thin ideal," they lose credibility, Miller said in an e-mail. "For men, however, the ideal is to have more muscle mass and be larger. In fact, obese male candidates were often evaluated more positively than their non-obese counterparts."
Where does all this leave Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, whose small stature (official height: 5 feet 7 inches) makes him not only the shortest potential male contender but also the lightest?
"Daniels is perfect," McKinnon told me. "He's the antithesis of Obama. Short, balding and wooden. His slogan can be 'Less Is More With Mitch.' "
The former White House budget director can also take heart from James Madison, America's fourth president and the shortest chief executive in history. In 1808, Madison, all 5 feet 4 inches of him, defeated Federalist candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. (History doesn't tell us Pinckney's height, though he comes across as an average figure in at least one portrait.) Four years later, the diminutive incumbent claimed victory over DeWitt Clinton, a towering 6 feet 2½ inches.
To piano-playing political satirist Mark Russell, all this focus on candidate appearance "reeks of looksism." But it didn't take him long to describe "the perfect candidate: Long on height, short on looks, fat between the ears, a pompous sexy good old boy who wears a white sheet on the weekends and can see Russia from his plantation."
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