They're ready for their close-ups

Despite similar looks, Ehrlich and O'Malley are not two peas in a pod

November 02, 2006|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN REPORTER

Tough on crime? Good.

Plan for education. Also good.

Hot bod, good hair and nice smile? Well, now we're talking a candidate for governor.

It sounds superficial, but experts say even in this age where voters are more informed about issues than ever before, the way a candidate looks still matters when it comes to getting elected.

"We are a television and visual audience in all categories, and politics is no different," says Jerry Shuster, a professor of political communication and presidential rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. "Whether we like it or not, image is a part of your credibility, part of the nonverbal projection of who you are."

But in Maryland's hotly contested race for governor, the babe-o-meter doesn't swing too far in either direction. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley are roughly similar in height, weight, coloring and overall appearance. They even shop for suits at the same store - Jos. A. Bank.

"I think they're both young and handsome," says Henriette Leanos, 68, of Towson. "In this case, there's not much of a difference between them."

That's why it's notable that many voters still see them - we're talking physically, not politically - in very different ways.

Consider:

"I think O'Malley is hot," says Kathy Ash, 31, a title processor from Hampstead. "I think Bob Ehrlich looks more like a businessman, where Martin O'Malley looks more like a people person."

And then ...

"Ehrlich, he looks more political to me than Martin O'Malley, more like a governor," says Sharon Diggs, 40, a restaurant manager from Park Heights. who was at an Ehrlich event Tuesday. "Something about his seriousness."

Across the region, no matter, it seems, the age, race, sex or political affiliation of the voter, opinions about the attractiveness of the two contenders for governor bounce from one end to the other.

Ted Hawrylak, 49, is a Republican from Catonsville. He sells insurance for a living. "I don't like [Ehrlich's] hair," he says. "I don't know what's wrong with it, but I don't like it."

Frederick resident Stephanie Maxwell, 42, a Democrat who works in a state government office, wants to restyle O'Malley.

"He looks clean-cut, and his hair is in place, but I would change that shirt," she said, wrinkling her nose. "A white shirt would work better with that tie."

Most people don't believe they subconsciously choose candidates by the way they look, experts say. But they do, and have for years.

"The first instance of physical attractiveness swaying a political election was the example of Warren G. Harding," says McDaniel College history professor Bryn Upton. "In 1920, he ran for president. He was considered in his time period to be handsome and presidential-looking, even though he admitted he didn't have the experience to become president. He won anyway, based in large part on his looks."

Experience and know-how may count over time, but first impressions are the initial determinant many voters rely on, says image consultant Sandy Dumont.

"We either put them in the category that says, `Yes, I trust you completely,' or they get put into the `No' or `Maybe' category," which is difficult to get out of, Dumont says. "Also, consistency is very important. If you look polished, professional and powerful one minute and then completely loose and limp the next, it is incongruent and therefore disconcerting."

Dumont, who is a "conservative Democrat," took a casual look at photographs of Ehrlich and O'Malley and determined that O'Malley - with his penchant for dark suits and power ties - comes out the winner in the consistency department.

"Governor Ehrlich, on the other hand, wears polo shirts," Dumont continues. "Polo shirts are not powerful. They send the message that you have a casual attitude. Ehrlich also wears turtlenecks or mock turtlenecks occasionally, and they are the epitome of relaxation."

This week, the two candidates traveled the state, turning up the heat as the campaign draws to a close.

At a news conference in front of a Montgomery County Council office building in Rockville, O'Malley wore a dark blue, two-button suit with a lighter blue shirt and a red striped tie. He was buttoned and snapped and spit-polished.

The same day, Ehrlich spoke to citizens at a barbershop in Park Heights. He wore brown slacks, a white shirt and a tie with burgundy stripes. He wore no jacket; his sleeves were rolled.

Brown, Dumont says, isn't the best color for a political candidate, even one who has earned respect for his Everyman persona.

"It is the color of Mom baking cookies or Dad smoking his pipe and being kindly, fatherly," she says. "It is not looking like the suit a powerful man would wear."

But O'Malley's stint as a small-time rock star, in muscle shirts that showcased his oft-seen upper arms, also turned off some folks.

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