A 'serious' to-do list for the female GOP candidates

Women are at a disadvantage when running for the presidency, as Hillary Clinton's candidacy demonstrated all too well. Despite all of the ground women have gained in politics and the professions, the presidency is still very much manly terrain. Voters want a president they see as strong and courageous, capable and steady. In 2012, they want a president who can fix the economy and fight our wars. These are neither stereotypical female traits, nor issues that voters perceive women as incredibly capable of handling.

In short, voters want a candidate who is serious and can deal with the serious issues of our time. Palin and Bachmann are falling short in the "serious" arena. Unfortunately, their very femaleness puts them at a natural disadvantage, but their own choices and strategies have contributed to their lack of presidential solemnity.

If Palin and Bachmann want to reverse course, boost their poll numbers, and become serious candidates, they should start by checking off the items on the following to-do list:

1. Get Serious about the Economy

There is one main reason that Romney is the GOP frontrunner. More than any other candidate, he is seen as best able to handle the economy. Whether he actually is or not is a different story. The point is that he is perceived to be. The economy is the main issue on voters' minds. Housing remains in a slump, the country is on the brink of a debt crisis, and unemployment is high. The next Republican nominee-and the next president-will be the individual whom voters see as best able to handle the economy.

Not only do voters see the economy as mainly a man's issue, Palin and Bachmann have not worked to cultivate their images as economic experts. Romney comes across as the prototypical blue-suited, cool-headed businessman. Meanwhile, Bachmann appeared this weekend at a GOP leadership conference in a practically backless white dress and talked about teaching creationism versus evolution in schools. The base cares about this issue, but the headlines detracted from the economic message. Generally, Palin still needs to work hard to recover from her 2008 "inexperienced" image, where she was seen as not really an expert on anything serious.

2. Lose the Fox News Celebrity Status

All cable news channels dwell in hyperbole, emotion, and sensationalism for the sake of ratings. Fairly or unfairly, Fox News has acquired the reputation as the leader in un-serious reporting. Fox News remains popular with tea party conservatives. But those who embed themselves too firmly within the network risk putting themselves outside of the mainstream. Primary voters do consider how likely the candidate is to appeal to moderates, and therefore win, in their primary calculations. For a woman candidate, it is not good to be on the fringe.

Palin has joined with Fox News as a regular contributor, and Bachmann appears so regularly on the network, one might be apt to confuse her with one of their female anchors. Neither Romney nor any of the male candidates have such a relationship with the network.  A Fox affiliation can only enhance their built-in female stereotypes of being overly dramatic.

3. Tone down the Silly Lingo

Again, these are serious times. Beyond our economic problems, Osama bin Laden's recent capture reminds Americans that we are still involved in the war on terrorism. American troops continue to lose their lives on Afghan and Iraqi battlefields. Given the grave worldwide landscape, there is no room for silly presidential rhetoric.

On a recent Fox program, Palin gave this reason for running: "I would love to give the White house fits. I would, because, you know, I would love to stir it up even more..." Not only is this juvenile, it is not a good reason to run for president. Meanwhile, Bachmann is promoting her Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, lately reassuring a New Orleans rally, "President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want." Amidst all of our other problems, she is discussing light bulbs.

It all seems a bit dim.

Jill Abraham Hummer is assistant professor of political science at Wilson College. She researches women and the presidency.