Almost every campaign has one, a subterranean, policy-free question irritating to the candidate but fascinating to the voter. It's never something one can comfortably ask the politician; rather, it percolates in private conversations, makes the rounds of Internet chat rooms and sometimes snakes its way onto talk radio.
So here's what a lot of people are whispering about Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.: That dark, straight, immobile head of hair - is it real?
To his credit, Ehrlich, the 2nd District congressman running for governor, laughed and laughed when finally asked this question recently. "If it's a toupee, it's getting a little gray," he replied. "It's definitely real," he added. No wig, no Grecian Formula.
"I just got a haircut last week," Ehrlich, 44, continued. "My wife yelled at me to get one. She thinks it looks better short."
Hair might seem a frivolous thing for voters to wonder about. Certainly the candidates would rather they concentrated on more sobering issues, such as state's gaping budget shortfall, the gun and drug crime ravaging Baltimore or whether Maryland ought to legalize slot machines.
But woe to the politician, it turns out, who sniffs at the importance of hair. Even facial hair.
Take Canada. A 2000 survey found one in three Canadian voters was influenced by a candidate's facial hair (12 percent were more likely to vote for candidates with beards or moustaches, while 24 percent were less likely. Sixty-four percent didn't care).
Yale University psychology professor Marianne LaFrance conducted research in 2000 that found hairstyles very specifically shape people's first impressions of others. Women with dark, medium-length, casual hairstyles were perceived as intelligent, good-natured and careless, for instance, while medium-length, side-parted hair on men is seen as a sign of affluence, intelligence and narrow-mindedness.
For political men in particular, using dye or wearing a rug is not advisable, says Sherry Maysonave, an Austin, Texas-based image consultant used by a number of national politicians. (She refused to name any. "This is a very sensitive business," she explained.")
"If a man has to cover a balding area, it shows a lack of confidence," she said. "If he's willing to cover that up and not face it truthfully, what else is he willing to cover up?" A case in point might be U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., convicted of federal corruption charges. His tall, wild hair was revealed to be a toupee during a routine search at Pennsylvania's Summit County Jail.
"Especially in today's environment, when corporate responsibility and ethics have been called into the scene, [voters] really want authenticity - all the way down to the hair," Maysonave continued.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder evidently understands this. In May he won a court ruling quelling media speculation that he dyed his brown hair. His barber testified. Likewise, Ronald Reagan's barber came to the president's defense to stifle national tittering when his hair became oddly orange.
For Ehrlich, of course, it's no picnic running against Kennedy hair. Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend inherited the thicket of gingery hair made famous by her uncle, John F. Kennedy, and her father, Robert F. Kennedy. Their young, vibrant hair added to their charisma and was something of a trademark for a new era in American politics.
Asked about her hair, which appears almost heliotropic, Townsend, 51, said, "It is real. It is dyed." She has it dyed brown, but with time the sun turns the dye blond, which is her cue to visit the hairdresser - about every six weeks. If she didn't dye it, she'd be gray, she said.
"I think she's smart to put in some color," said Maysonave. "On a man, gray hair can connote wisdom. It can look elegant and distinguished. On a woman, it looks frumpy. I don't like it, but it's true. By coloring it, she can project the dynamic person that she is and a sense that she can get the job done."
Ehrlich's hair does have isolated flecks of gray, but probably not enough to connote anything except that it's real. The impression that it could be a toupee might come in part from his lack of sideburns, which lends his flat-lying hair, side-parted at about 2 o'clock, a streamlined quality. Many in his entourage also lack sideburns, so it could be a Republican thing. (Ehrlich claims he can't grow sideburns, but a friend said he doesn't wear them because they grow in gray.)
Maysonave offers Ehrlich this advice: Adopt a new hairstyle.
"He may feel that sideburns do not fit with a conservative image, and he's right - long ones do not," she said. "He could have some short, crisp ones that would still be in line with his politics."
After all, she says, it's no use having real hair that looks fake.
"He's probably not aware of people not listening to him because they're thinking, `Is that a toupee or what?' The power of his words actually drops."
Ehrlich's is certainly not the only political hair in Maryland to raise questions. When Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's curly hair suddenly went from grayish to strikingly red in 2000, it sparked all manner of speculation, and a newspaper story.
And the yellow blond hairstyle of Sen. Ida G. Ruben of Montgomery County - upswept with a croissant-shaped bun at the very top - has something of a national reputation.
Earlier this month, Ruben was a featured speaker at a fund-raiser for Townsend, which was headlined by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"I don't think Ida's ever had a bad hair day in her life," Clinton said.
Staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.