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Beauty is more than ballot deep

Posted 2/9/04

On the campaign trail, U.S. Senate candidate Chirinjeev Kathuria groans whenever he ends up next to opponent Jack Ryan in a photo.

There's just no competing with Ryan's million-watt smile.

Or his chiseled good looks.

Or his toned body.

"The reaction to Jack is always very strong," Kathuria said. "The initial reaction to him is absolutely different from the reaction to me."

Kathuria, a Sikh who wears a traditional turban and beard, normally wouldn't care how he stacks up against the western definition of dreamy. But in a crowded Senate race, he knows it matters.

Conventional wisdom suggests that good-looking candidates fare better than their less-attractive opponents. It's more than a political handler's belief - it's a behavior pattern backed by years of research by a Northern Illinois University professor.

"Looks count," professor James Schubert said. "People are more likely to pay attention to attractive candidates."

Schubert began his research while visiting Romania in 1996. He enlarged photographs of the 16 men running for president and showed them to a wide range of people.

Without offering any insight on campaign platforms or issues, respondents were asked to pick the top finishers. The participants were able to predict the top vote-getters with a high degree of accuracy.

Schubert then took his Romanian photos around the world. From NIU students in DeKalb to Indonesian adults and teens in Papa New Guinea, the top six finishers in the poll received 91 percent of the actual popular vote.

Regardless of country or culture, Schubert says respondents warmed to candidates with prominent brows, strong jaws and high cheek bones.

They embraced candidates, it seems, with features similar to Jack Ryan's. And from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, some of the other Senate hopefuls can't blame them.

"The guy looks like a movie star with that million-dollar smile," Democratic candidate Nancy Skinner said. "I think it's going to be a factor in the election."

While Skinner - the only blonde in the Democratic primary - believes Ryan will benefit from his good looks, she contends her appearance has been a detriment to her campaign.

An attractive woman doesn't get the inherent respect male candidates receive, she says.

"Blondes may have more fun, but blondes have it tougher running for Senate," she said. "They look at you and somehow you're an opportunist or unqualified because you're not an old, white male."

Though many politicians dismiss suggestions that voters can be swayed by looks, their actions suggest otherwise.

Presidential hopeful John Kerry denied he had Botox injections, but the deep crevices in his face have disappeared quicker than Howard Dean. Kerry also sports quite a tan for a Massachusetts boy in winter, but he swears he pays no attention to his appearance.

Dairy owner Jim Oberweis, a Republican hopeful for U.S. Senate, has lost 50 pounds since the 2002 primary.

State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, another GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, shaved his beard to look more attractive to voters. It may be a smart move given no one with facial hair has won the White House since newspapers began publishing pictures in 1903.

"Facial hair can make voters think you have something to hide," Schubert said.

Mindful of this, Kathuria says he went so far as to conduct focus groups on his appearance. Participants considered the Republican's turban and beard the top two problems with his candidacy - ranking them above his lack of political experience and nonexistent name recognition.

The results initially troubled Kathuria. Even though he emigrated from India as an infant, he wondered whether voters would accept him in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.

But now, he says, his look has worked to his advantage. He believes people take the time to read his literature and listen to him on television because they're curious about what the Sikh candidate has to say.

"It's our biggest challenge to overcome, but it has helped us get our message across," he said. "It's very easy for us to differentiate ourselves from everyone else."

Still, Kathuria feels pressure to make a pre-emptive strike about his appearance. He begins every speech with a joke about Sikh customs to help ease any tension.

"Don't let the beard and turban fool you," he says. "I'm an American."

His fellow Republicans also have little trouble poking fun at their appearances. Retired Maj. Gen. John Borling - a bald 63-year-old Republican - regularly refers to himself as the best-looking GOP hopeful.

"I labor under a burden in this race because I am the pretty candidate," he said at a recent debate.

After Rauschenberger got rid of his beard, Borling joked he shaved his own head in a show of solidarity.

"Anybody who knows General Borling knows he has a good sense of humor," his spokesman, David Zapata, said. "No matter what the study shows, General Borling is confident with his lack of hair."

Rauschenberger, still sans beard, seems plenty confident, too.

"It's really his snappy cardigans and budget expertise that makes the voters swoon," his spokesman, Charlie Stone, said.

Ryan, his aides say, has been cursed with a strong metabolism. He has to make sure he eats enough or the poor guy will rapidly lose weight.

"He's on the slender side," his spokeswoman, Kelli Phiel, said. "We want him to be able to fill out a suit."

Looks: Skinner says her looks have hurt her chances

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