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Is presidential race a simple matter of standing tall?


Lisa D. Tossey / Capital News Service (KRT)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Four inches. It may not seem like much, but that could be the hurdle standing between President Bush and a second term in office if he faces Sen. John Kerry in November.

Or so say believers in the Presidential Height Index, which holds that since the rise of television in American homes, the tallest candidate has won the popular vote in every election but two: the 1972 defeat of 6-foot-1-inch Sen. George McGovern by 5-foot-11 and 1⁄2-inch President Nixon, and the 1976 defeat of President Ford, 6 feet, by former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, 5 feet 9 and 1⁄2.

The theory puts the 6-foot-4-inch Kerry on solid ground against Bush, who is an even 6 feet, according to his 2001 physical released by the White House.

"Height counts," said Tim Blessing, a Penn State/Alvernia College presidential scholar. "Kerry will tower over Bush, and that will provide a very visceral kind of comparison and a powerful image."

Beryl Wing, president of the Association of Image Consultants International, NY/Tri-State Chapter, agreed that height and other physical factors can sway votes.

"It makes sense," she said. "People vote for the most powerful looking. We want the top dog to lead us."

But Steven F. Hayward, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, is not sold on the predictive powers of height. It is "a bit of a fluke," he said.

"The problem with that is that you're dealing with a small sample size," Hayward said.

And it overlooks other factors that can influence campaigns, including the power of money and incumbency, the health of the economy, candidates' track records and their positions on issues.

Proponents argue that height influences not only campaigns, but politicians' effectiveness in office. Numerous studies demonstrate tall politicians "literally stand out from the crowd, and intimidate their colleagues," Blessing said.

Thomas F. Schaller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, finds the intimidation factor interesting - especially if Kerry ends up facing Bush in a debate. Schaller recalled a 1988 presidential debate when the elder Bush greeted Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis with an exaggerated long handshake - a move he said was orchestrated by Bush's campaign manager to reaffirm the fact that Bush was taller.

"It will be revenge on the Bush family," Schaller said. "Kerry will want to do a long handshake to make the same point."

The rest of the Democratic pack lags behind the lanky Massachusetts senator. Sen. John Edwards stands 6 feet, followed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, at 5 feet 10 inches, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, at 5 feet 7.

Democrats who have dropped out of the race include retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who is 5 feet 10, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, once called "diminutive" by The New York Times. The New Republic quoted Dean in October as telling reporters that he is "Five-eight and three-quarters," but that he usually does not mention the "three-quarters" because, "It sounds like I'm sensitive about my height. And I'm not."

Of the remaining candidates, only Sharpton has facial hair - an apparent presidential faux pas for nearly a century. The last president to sport a mustache was William Taft, who served from 1909 to 1913, while the last bearded president, Benjamin Harrison, left office in 1893.

Both Schaller and Blessing agree that the lack of facial hair on candidates reflects societal trends. But Blessing, Wing and Hayward contend that other physical traits may be factors.

"Since the television era began, experience has not been so important. Image really becomes important, allowing presidents to get in with little experience," Blessing said, citing presidents John F. Kennedy, who served four years as a congressman and one term as a senator, and Carter, who was governor of Georgia.

"The visual phenomenon is so powerful it puts people in office." Hayward agreed. "Since politics has become show business, you have to be decent looking but not too handsome," he said.

Since Nixon, presidents have had "a distinct look," Hayward added, noting Carter's smile and Ronald Reagan's matinee-idol features. "Even Clinton had a Reaganesque rock-star quality."

Blessing said Bush's "rubbery, mobile face" could cost him. "When he smiles one corner of his face comes up," he said. This characteristic could be responsible for Bush's infamous smirk. "People respond to that," Blessing said. "No question - looks will play a role in this race."

Wing has noticed a shift in Bush's attire that may influence how voters view him. "He's started to wear light-blue ties - a paler, friendly hue that signifies trust," she said. "He needs all the trust elements he can get."

As for Kerry, Wing says it is hard to know if his height can overcome his "patrician aura, and that's his main stumbling block.

"He looks like a Northerner one might be afraid to approach," she said. "(Americans) like the 'guy next door.' " But Wing notes that lately Kerry has appeared more friendly and approachable on the campaign trail.

"Very strong body language trumps everything," she said. "If he keeps the looser body language, it will go a long way to helping him win."


© 2004 Capital News Service

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.





Chuck Kennedy / KRT Campus

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) waves to supporters in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, March 2, 2004.