‘Wimp factor’ could pose threat to some 2012 GOP contenders

The “wimp factor” — a label that was once applied with derision to George H.W. Bush — might be back to haunt the Republican Party.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty are the putative front-runners among the declared 2012 candidates. They both have many attributes. But neither man is liable to be confused with John Wayne.

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This has become even more noticeable now that Rep. Michele BachmannMichele BachmannChief strategist of pro-Trump super-PAC guilty in payment scandal GOP operative Ed Rollins joins pro-Trump super-PAC Michele Bachmann trolls Clinton on NYC subway MORE (R-Minn) has entered the race and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has once again ramped up her profile (though she remains on the sidelines for now). Both women seem to have a stronger elemental appeal to conservative activists than do their male rivals.

Palin’s elevation of “Mama Grizzlies” as an archetype of female ferocity, and Bachmann’s frequent imploring about the need to “man up,” serve as reminders that both women are more than willing to raise gender issues in a vigorous way.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a Sarah Palin or a Michele Bachmann called into question their opponents’ — Republican or Democrat — standing as men,” said Charles Knight, a writer on gender issues.

Questions about the political muscularity of Romney and Pawlenty were raised once again in the wake of Monday night’s Republican primary debate in New Hampshire.

Pawlenty’s refusal to use the term “ObamneyCare” as he stood on the same stage with Romney — even though he used it the day before on “Fox News Sunday” — was seen by some as a telling failure of nerve.

And Romney’s suggestion that the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan as expeditiously as possible, together with his comment that “Americans cannot fight another nation’s war of independence,” earned him the opprobrium of Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSenators to Obama: Make 'timely' call on Afghan troops levels Senate amendments could sink email privacy compromise Trump: Romney 'walks like a penguin' MORE (R-S.C.), among others.

Graham, who supported Sen. John McCainJohn McCainWhy a power grid attack is a nightmare scenario Senate fight brews over Afghan visas Trump: Illegal immigrants treated better than veterans MORE (R-Ariz.) over Romney in the 2008 race, told The Hill that any Republican who took such a view could end up being seen as akin to Jimmy Carter — a president who, in conservative eyes at least, has long been regarded as feeble.

These mini-controversies could carry greater significance than would otherwise be the case because they add fuel to existing negative narratives about both men.

Romney has long struggled to get away from the more preppy elements of his image.

During his 2008 bid, he sought to appeal to gun-loving primary voters by declaring himself “a lifelong hunter” — only to have to admit that his hunting experience had amounted to a handful of outings and that his targets had generally been “small varmints, if you will.”

And Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly recently accused Pawlenty of being so bland that “Häagen-Dazs could put his picture on ‘vanilla.’ ”

A spokeswoman for the Romney campaign declined to comment.

A Pawlenty spokesman referred The Hill to the candidate’s comments defending his debate performance, delivered in an interview on Fox News Channel on Tuesday.

There, Pawlenty said he did not “understand what the kerfuffle’s about” in relation to his refusal to go after Romney more directly.

“Anybody who says I lack toughness — look at my record,” Pawlenty added, recounting his role in dealing with a government shutdown and a transit strike while governor of Minnesota, and in vetoing state spending.

Republican presidential candidates have long enjoyed an advantage among white male voters. There is no single reason for this. But the GOP’s success at portraying its candidates as more assertive, decisive and outright macho than their opponents is clearly part of the mix.

Those who don’t fit the template, like Bush Sr., can often pay a political price.

Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, worked on Bush’s 1988 campaign. But even he admits the candidate had problems with projecting a robust image.

“As vice president, he came across as servile,” Pitney acknowledged. “And his whole package of mannerisms just didn’t come across as being those of an alpha male.”

Jackson Katz, an educator and filmmaker who is completing a book on masculinity and the presidency, asserted that attacks on a rival politician’s manliness can be “devastating. It is how Republicans have been able to win presidential elections for the past 40 years. They’ve been able to present themselves as the party of real men, and they’ve feminized the Democratic Party.”

But, Katz added, the situation is more complex in this election cycle because “out of the current [GOP] candidates, none of them has that special quality of white manhood that has been so successful for Republicans” in the past.

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The dissatisfaction conservatives feel with the current Republican field might be partly related to a wish that other, more overtly masculine contenders had entered — or may yet enter — the race. Many among the conservative grass roots were disappointed when rambunctious Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who once described himself as “a fat redneck,” stepped back.

In recent days, there has been a groundswell of encouragement for Texas Gov. Rick Perry to seek the nomination.

At the very least, it seems conceivable that the cowboy-boot-wearing Perry — who last year went out for a jog, saw a coyote menacing his daughter’s dog and shot it dead with a .380 Ruger he happened to be carrying — could stir something in the collective conservative breast that seems beyond the reach of Romney or Pawlenty.

If he stays out, however, it could be left to Palin or Bachmann to show the rest of the field some metaphorical cojones.

“If they were men,” said Katz, “they would have exactly what the Republican Party is looking for.”