WASHINGTON Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a former beauty queen running to be the United States' next vice president, challenges the old saying, "Washington is Hollywood for ugly people."
The Republican's looks have grabbed arguably even more attention than her conservative political views. When he met her, Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, called Palin gorgeous, and readers of the men's magazine Maxim voted her one of the planet's sexiest politicians.
Good-looking, cute, even "hot" -- these are just some adjectives used to describe Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, even as some commentators and party insiders question her competence to serve as president-in-waiting and others call the obsession with her appearance sexism.
McCain surprised many by picking Palin, a self-described moose-hunting "hockey mom" largely unknown on the national political scene, as his No. 2 in late August, but she proved hugely popular in the first few weeks following her nomination and lifted the Republican campaign out of the doldrums.
"She indeed brought a fresh face into the Republican campaign and stole a lot of Barack Obama's freshness for a critical couple of weeks. I'm sure it has not hurt her that that fresh face is a pretty face," said pollster John Zogby.
The good looks of Obama, McCain's Democratic rival for the presidency, have also garnered some media attention, but it has paled in comparison to the attention given Palin's.
The skewed coverage has led to charges of sexism from Palin supporters and others who say it belittles her candidacy. It has also put the spotlight on this question: How much do looks help win elections?
"Obviously Jack Kennedy trumped on the way he looked," Zogby said. "On the other hand Lyndon Johnson, a gangly Texan, ran against a strikingly handsome Barry Goldwater (and won). Jack Kennedy, Bill Clinton, the looks certainly worked for them ... but looks alone are not going to carry the day for you."
'HOTTEST' GOVERNOR, COLDEST STATE
Palin's appearance has made for some tricky campaigning.
McCain's campaign released an attack ad in September accusing the Democrats of sexism after Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, joked that one key difference between himself and Palin was that she was good-looking.
Days earlier, however, delegates from Palin's home state of Alaska turned up at the Republican convention proudly sporting badges announcing that they had the "hottest" governor from the coldest state.
Palin referred to the attention her looks garner in an interview with Vogue magazine, before her nomination.
"I wish they'd stick with the issues instead of discussing my black go-go boots. A reporter once asked me about it ... and I assured him I was trying to be as frumpy as I could by wearing my hair on top of my head and these schoolmarm glasses," she said.
So, is the attention to her wardrobe and physical appearance legitimate?
"I think the discussion of her looks is a measure of the sexism left in our society, that instead of focusing on her opinions there is so much discussion (of her looks). If you go online and look at the number of hits on her when she was a beauty queen, they are pretty dramatic," said Professor Barbara Risman, head of sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago.
A search by Reuters found that a 44-second video of Sarah Palin in a swimsuit in the 1984 Miss Alaska pageant had been viewed more than 700,000 times on the YouTube website since being posted on September 26.
San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer Caille Millner, who has accused the McCain campaign of tokenism in its nomination of Palin, contends that the talk of Palin's appearance is appropriate.
"It is perfectly fair to bring this up -- did McCain bring her on the ticket because she is good-looking and has sex appeal and this is something his campaign lacked?" she said.
In any case, the comments on Palin's appearance are nothing new.
"Since women started running in large numbers statewide or for the Senate, which was in 1992, studies show that all print media spent much more time talking about what a woman looked like and what she wore than they did about their male counterparts," said Professor Karen O'Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington.
O'Connor and some other commentators believe Palin is acutely aware of her attractiveness and plays up to it.
"There is the 'babe factor.' It's almost as if she is cultivating that," O'Connor said.
But University of Illinois at Chicago's Risman says that could backfire if true.
"In professional settings women who exaggerate femininity are not taken as seriously because ultra-femininity and power and prestige are seen as opposites in our culture."
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)