The Bachelor Candidates

Standing on the steps of Virginia's capitol building Sand flanked by his three photogenic children, Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder announced his presidential candidacy last week. His campaign portrait had all the right symbolism for the grandson of slaves running for the nation's highest office. But there was one element missing: an adoring wife. In recent elections, traditional values have become such hot-button issues that a devoted wife is a candidate's first defense. Yet the divorced Wilder is one of three single men lining up for the Democratic nomination. The others who have yet to declare-are Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, the divorced father two teenagers, and former California governor Jerry Brown, who has never been married. All will have to figure out how to play the delicate game of bachelor etiquette.

Traditionally, when a male politician runs for president, the first thing his media adviser does is order up a family photo. Being able to play the game of family show and tell is more important for a potential candidate than his views on the budget deficit. "The family portrait is a shorthand way of saying, 'I share your values'," says media consultant Michael Sheehan. New Age bachelor candidates may argue that the Noah's Ark concept is outdated. But voters are accustomed to thinking of the presidency in terms of First Couples. Only two bachelors have been elected president: land, who married while in office, and James Buchanan.

Today's bachelor candidates will face scrutiny of their dating habits and earnest analysis of their inability to make a commitment. (For all the gossip, at least they won't have to fend off questions about adultery, a charge that hounds some married candidates.) In a recent Mademoiselle magazine article, Kerrey is described as "an evergreen, Peter Pan type." A Washington Post story on eligible bachelors called Wilder "cute, charming and funny to boot." Brown's long-ago liaison with rock star Linda Ronstadt added pizzazz to his Zen-like image. The press coverage has a chirpy "Dating Game" flavor and could boost the Democrats' charisma. Kerrey's on-again, off-again relationship with actress Debra apparently cooled into a steady friendship, but the Post speculated that makes him an even better catch. Wilder enjoys a discreet relationship with wealthy socialite Patricia Kluge, whose ex-husband was the biggest contributor to Wilder's gubernatorial race. Kluge has told friends she is concerned about preserving her privacy, and evidently has no intention of becoming an "arm decoration," the phrase used by handlers to describe the old-style political wife.

Without a wife, a candidate has to find other ways to convey his commitment to traditional values. "There will be a great demand for Labrador retrievers to stand in," says Sheehan. In 1956 posters of divorced Democrat Adlai Stevenson showed him smiling across the breakfast table-at no one in particular. To counter Ike and Mamie's togetherness, Stevenson cut a five-minute television ad outlining his stand on fighting inflation while grocery shopping with his daughter-in-law.

Bachelor candidates have to work harder to show their human side. Kerrey's ex-wife, Bev Higby, told reporters in Omaha last week that she backed him "150 percent" but wondered if voters would elect a single man who is a workaholic. She recalled that the night they got home from their honeymoon in 1973, Kerrey went out to check his restaurant business. "I said to myself: 'I think I'm in big trouble here'," she said.

All three Democratic contenders have been tested as bachelor governors. Kerrey shocked some Nebraska: voters by having Winger over for long visits in the governor's mansion, but he left office with 70 percent approval ratings. Entertaining in Virginia, Wilder occasionally turns to his daughters but mostly operates solo. As governor of California, Brown's bachelorhood was the least of his idiosyncracies. Without wives as props, candidates will find it harder to substitute symbolism for substance. "The courage of your convictions is far more central to the voters' concern than marital status," says strategist Carl Wagner, who advises Kerrey. In an election year when voters are tired of being fooled, a Labrador retriever may be enough.