When the ballot hits the box in New Hampshire, Howard Dean will be the one to beat. How did the former governor of a sparsely populated state become the Democratic front-runner? The usual explanation is that he sprang from the Internet and took to the skies with a series of propitious political alliances. That may account for Dean’s current standing, but it’s not why he stuck out from the pack almost from the moment he announced. Dean did it, as conservative columnist George Will notes, by “discern[ing] what liberals want: attitude.”

It’s also what attracted the media to Dean. A database search reveals that in December 836 newspaper pieces about him mentioned the a-word. Look beneath the surface of Dean’s plucky, peppery attitude and you’ll find the underlying reason for his success. He’s butch–and many Democrats are convinced that’s what it takes to beat George Bush.

Dean will have to do a lot more than man up to overcome the President’s popularity. But if the polls tighten, gender presentation could make a decisive difference–as it did in 2000, when Al Gore’s less-than-butch image cost him dearly. This is not to say that people vote on the basis of sexual fantasies alone, but the erotic aura that surrounds a candidate is a big part of that intangible quality called charisma. Today it isn’t a matter of being tall, not too dark, and handsome; it’s all about gender presentation.

Is she a real woman; is he a real man? These may be the most important questions in American politics today, precisely because they are rarely asked. Pollsters don’t measure a candidate’s butch appeal, but political strategists do. And ever since Ronald Reagan rode roughshod over that wimp in the Mr. Rogers cardigan, the Republicans have played the gender card very effectively against the Democrats. From Bill Clinton’s “rhymes with witch” wife to Gore’s obsession with earth colors, the party of give-’em-hell Harry has taken blow after blow to the primal parts. It’s been a long time since the Democrats had a presidential candidate who could jut out his chest and shoot from the hip with Dean’s credibility. Maybe it’s natural, maybe it’s an act, but as even some Republicans are willing to admit, it seems to be working.

Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Reagan, calls Dean “the it candidate”–not because of his policy positions but because of “sheer attitude.” When Bill Moyers asked Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz what she thought of Dean, she launched into a meditation on his body: “He’s got this jut-jawed face. He’s got sort of the right posture. It’s an absurd posture–that sleeves rolled up. But it works for mysterious reasons. All the mysterious reasons…you can’t put your finger on.” Women are freer to acknowledge what guys aren’t supposed to notice (though they do): Dean has skillfully cast himself as a manly alternative to Bush’s ripe macho. That’s no mean feat for a dove.

Dean is the only major Democratic candidate to evade the sissifying barbs of the GOP’s shock-jock surrogates. First, comely John Edwards was labeled “the Breck girl.” (He trimmed his hair, to no avail.) When Edwards flagged and John Kerry emerged, he was dubbed “Mr. Ketchup,” implying that his wife’s fortune, and by extension Teresa Heinz Kerry herself, wears the pants in their manse. (Kerry hauled out a bomber jacket to signal his war record, but it resonated with the image of Michael Dukakis peering haplessly from the hatch of a tank.) Then came Wesley Clark in mufti barely concealing his stars and bars. After this writer compared Clark favorably to Ashley Wilkes, Rush Limbaugh jumped on the analogy, braying on about Clark’s wimpery while the theme from Gone With the Wind played in the background. As for Dick Gephardt, he has long labored under the burden of lacking eyebrows, making it hard for him to perform the requisite Dirty Harry stare. If he should somehow prevail, look for the Republicans to draw comparisons between his currently ample brows and their formerly faint state. If there’s one thing wussier than lacking body hair, it’s a transplant.

The butch issue explains why Dean’s military record is such a hot potato. If it’s true that he avoided service by pleading a bad back and then spent the next year skiing, that would be a ruse worthy of a weasel. Of course, Bush managed to overcome a shifty military record. Why are Republicans able to get away with the very flaws they pin on Democrats? The answer speaks to the enormous success GOP strategists have had in reaching voters on a symbolic level. The Republicans have adapted their Southern strategy to the new terms of sexual politics. What they once did with race, they are doing today with gender.

It’s no surprise that the Republicans excel at this craft. The corporate class they draw from has had to think long and hard about the primal aspects of identification. Knowing how to manipulate sexual fantasies is crucial to the process of shaping consumer demand. With the same practiced expertise, the Republicans have stoked white male anxiety, positioning themselves as “the Daddy Party” while linking their competition with every attempt to deconstruct the patriarchy that feminism and queer theory devised. The Democrats have been caught in this well-laid trap. The more they reach out to good old boys, the more they risk alienating feminists and blacks; and the more they embrace liberal values, the more they lose straight white men. This is no minor quandary. White guys are 39 percent of the electorate, and by now only 22 percent of them identify as Democrats. To understand why the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy is in such parlous shape, you have only to look at how the dude vote has gravitated to the GOP.

At the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council, this “white male problem” has become the subject of whole conferences. Dean may lambaste the DLC as “the Republican part of the Democratic Party,” but he’s borrowed page after page from its gender-politics playbook. Dean wasn’t just whistling Dixie when he made his infamous remark about reaching out to bubbas bearing Confederate flags. Even when he apologized, he didn’t back down from the agenda behind that comment. In cultivating the National Rifle Association, denying that he’s a liberal, signaling his flexibility on affirmative action and insisting that he’s not really for gay marriage (just civil unions), Dean is playing to pissed-off white guys.

It’s far from clear that this flirtation will succeed, since Dean is surrounded by the very people good old boys love to hate, starting with gay couples and antiwar activists. Still, Dean thinks he can win back a bloc of Reagan Democrats by addressing blue-collar issues (gingerly). He’s certainly no Dennis Kucinich, in substance or style. As historian Douglas Brinkley told the New York Times, Kucinich echoes a time when heroic men projected “a gender-blend” of sensitivity and aggression. This “1960s version of masculinity” may be why Kucinich’s short stature is often mentioned in the media, while Dean seldom gets that treatment, though he’s not a lot taller. If Kucinich is a vegan, Dean acts like a man who likes his steak blood-rare and his politics cutthroat. These traits are part of his campaign to achieve symbolically what he can’t quite carry off ideologically, by competing with Bush for the most potent compliment in American politics today: You the man!

A specter is haunting the White House. It is the specter of the young Clint Eastwood. Check him out in those Reagan-era bad-cop films and you’ll see the origin of Bush’s flinty glare. This President owes his mandate, such as it is, to his projection of macho. There’s a reason why he’s the first President in history to inspire an action-hero doll. (Decked out in a flight suit, he’s ready to enchant 8-year-olds of all ages.) From Bush’s taunting response to insurgents in Iraq–“Bring ’em on”–to the fighter-pilot drag he donned for that famous aircraft-carrier landing, he rarely misses a chance to wave his whopper, and not just figuratively. That flight suit had a distinctly bulbous crotch. It’s no reach to think that Bush’s handlers, so concerned about lighting and posing him, would pad his panache. That sort of gesture goes straight to the subconscious, an achievement any hidden persuader can be proud of.

Still, something about the President’s swagger lends itself to parody. It looks as forced and fragile as it is. Molly Ivins, an acute student of Bush’s persona, says it combines three strands of Texas culture: “religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo. The machismo is what I think is fake.” If conditions grow grim, the doubts about his masculinity that have haunted Bush throughout his political life will reappear. One reason Dean smells blood in Iraq is that a quagmire there will resonate with what Texans used to say about Dubya: “All hat and no cattle.” In the macho imagination, nothing is worse than a belligerent claim that can’t be supported. This is why the slogan of Bush’s warship visitation–“Mission Accomplished”–is a potential liability for him and a gift to Dean.

Can a Democrat be an alpha male? The question hasn’t come up on CNN, but it may be the hidden issue of the campaign. After decades of associating Democrats with failed masculinity, the Republicans are faced with an opponent who knows how to put on a butch display. They are trying to get around Dean’s fight-back persona by portraying him as a dyspeptic, impetuous fool. Whether this negative spin will stick remains to be seen, but there’s another a-word that pops up regularly in pieces about Dean: anger. The Republicans and their allies are trying to undercut his brashness by calling him reckless. Still, fist-waving hasn’t exactly hurt Donald Rumsfeld. Ever since 9/11, nothing seems to be over the top when it comes to macho in a pol. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger. His meteoric rise–despite a record of groping and degrading women–is ample proof that in American politics today Liberace’s motto applies: “Too much is not enough!”

Why do we require macho magic from our leaders? The answer is primal, and therefore complex. But human nature is never the whole story when it comes to political behavior. To decipher the current leadership style, look to the conditions of American life.

In 1965 Richard Hofstadter wrote a landmark book called The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter noticed that, in the prosperous 1960s, class interests were giving way to an emphasis on group status. The breakup of the old racial and ethnic order intensified this trend by pitting every group against all the rest–and then came the demands of women and gays. These days, status conflicts are driven less by economic fears than by threats to the masculine mystique.

Most Americans have felt the pinch of stagnant or declining wages, but white men aren’t doing especially badly. Only 18 percent of them earn less than $30,000; a third make $75,000 or more. If white guys lean Republican, material deprivation isn’t the main reason. Their feeling of persecution derives from an entirely symbolic insult. The prestige of white macho has definitely taken a hit, and the resulting sense of loss moves many issues. Take gun control. Despite the precipitate drop in crime, white men cling ever more tightly to their guns, and the right to lock and load is a major link between pistol-packing papas and the Republican Party. Assume that most of these guys cherish their weapons for other than practical reasons, and you can see the pull of the phallic on American politics.

Now factor in 9/11, with its gross insult to America’s twin stiffies (soon to be replaced by an even taller “Power Tower,” as the New York Post has dubbed it). Real as the danger of terrorism is, it has coincided with the so-called crisis of masculinity to produce a powerful perception that we need a strongman–rather than a strong person–in order to survive. The result is a politics of cartoon virility. But a symbol that doesn’t meet actual needs soon seems like an empty artifice. That’s what Dean is betting on. He’s out to embody a masculinity that feels substantial rather than ceremonial. In other words, he’s trying to be butch but not macho.

What is progressive masculinity? It has something to do with what the linguist George Lakoff calls “nurturant parenting.” All the great liberal Presidents of the past century were nurturers (their weakness for war notwithstanding). But conservative leaders follow another model; Lakoff calls it “the strict father.” The appeal of this harsh, punitive style is directly related to anxiety. People kept in a state of constant stress will sacrifice their best instincts and even their real interests for the illusion of safety–and sheer sexiness–that a bad dad can provide. That’s why the Republicans put such energy into arousing anxiety and displacing it onto Democrats. If Dean is to beat the odds, he will have to counter this strategy in every move he makes.

It won’t be easy. It doesn’t take much to foment fear in white boys. What’s more, as Al Sharpton reminds us, black voters aren’t impressed by attitude that doesn’t come with a progressive program. Then there’s the chance that conquest and a patchwork “recovery” will prop up the illusion that things are getting better. This will be the mother of all long shots for the Democrats. Butching up is no guarantee of victory. Still, for better or worse, it’s a necessary step.

We may resent the fact that Americans regard the penis and its symbolic projections as synonymous with strength. But psychic reality cannot be denied. At this moment, most voters are looking for a leader who reassures them with a manly presentation. The trick is to be a man women admire, blacks find credible and white guys bond with. It’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it or Bush will ride the backlash to the White House–with a real mandate this time.