Call it sex, lies and women on the campaign trail.
As women campaign in record numbers, they are discovering that their gender -- viewed as asset this year -- also has its drawbacks. Some male opponents are smearing them with rumors alleging adultery and lesbianism, charges that are harder for them to overcome because society holds women to higher moral standards.
The rumors suggest that "if a woman is single, she's either a lesbian or a whore," said Nikki Heidepriem, a Democratic consultant and specialist on women's issues. "If she's married, she's ignoring her husband or children."
Men are subject to sexual rumors, too. But, said Tony Podesta, a Democratic consultant: "All the way from boys will be boys in elementary school to boys will be boys in the U.S. Senate, women are held to a different standards about their private lives than men are. That's a fact of the culture that is not particularly unique to politics. More is expected of women."
Women also face questions about their appearance and traditional responsibilities as spouses and parents that men rarely get.
Women are vulnerable to rumors whether they are Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, as some candidates have learned this political season:
* Republican Sue Myrick, a conservative opponent of abortion rights and former mayor of Charlotte, NC, ran unsuccessfully for the Republican Senate nomination. She maintains that she was defeated by a telephone and mail campaign by her opponent's supporters, who charged her with everything from practicing Satanism to having an abortion, an illegitimate child and a homosexual son. "Everything was a lie," she said. "If I had been a male, they couldn't have gotten away with any of this. People would have dismissed it."
* Democrat Gloria O'Dell, who is running far behind Republican Sen. Bob Dole in Kansas, was branded a lesbian by her primary opponent, the Rev. Fred Phelps, whose supporters held signs calling her a derogatory name for lesbians. Although Phelps was a fringe candidate who has mounted other hate campaigns, O'Dell, 46, a divorced mother, was dogged by questions from voters and forced to call a news conference to proclaim her heterosexuality and denounce his tactics.
* Republican Donna Peterson, 31, a single person challenging U.S. Rep. Charles Wilson, D-Texas, charges that his campaign had spread rumors that she was having an affair with her finance chairman. "We have Wilson personally saying it," said Peterson, who took supporters to "meet the man that Wilson says I'm having an affair with....I would say, 'Look, this is the man. He's 70 years old.'" Wilson will not speak on the record about the issue but says coyly that Peterson ought to be "very cautious about bringing romance up."
* Even women voters who publicly support women candidates can get attacked on sexual grounds. At a rally Tuesday for Rep. Barbara Boxer, a Democratic Senate candidate in California, several dozen male college students who back her opponent, Bruce Herschensohn, shouted "femi-Nazis" and "lesbians" at her supporters. Boxer decried the slurs, saying that "people are tired of the politics of hate and fear and intimidation.
So are these women simply finding out what men already know: that campaigning in the political big leagues is often negative and nasty?
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, faced a feeding frenzy earlier this year over allegations of adultery. In 1988, Gary Hart, the Democratic presidential candidate, was brought down by similar charges. But many more men have survived rumors of marital infidelity, among them President George Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle.
"The difference is that with men, even when people deplore it, they say that's the kind of thing that men do. In our society, it's not supposed to be the thing that women do," said Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "Fair or unfair, women are held to a higher standard."
AND THERE MAY BE more at issue her in this "Year of the Woman." Do the attacks reflect mixed feelings about the gains women have made and their role in society? Is there a reaction against the growing numbers of women seeking higher office?
Leslie Wolfe, executive director of the Center for Women Policy Studies, said, "Women are still supposed to be taking care of the home and the hearth and supporting men who seek power... and these women are trying to get out there and run the country."
The rumors, women candidates say, are an attempt to strike at their strength as candidates. "One of the reasons voters are choosing women is that they feel they will reform the system, that they represent integrity and an end to scandal-ridden government," Woods said.
Ed Goeas, a Republican consultant and polltaker, says he thinks that women candidates overstate the effect of the sexual rumors. "A rumor campaign is never going to match what you're putting on the air or you're putting in the mail," he said. Moreover, he said, it is legitimate to attack a woman where she is strongest -- whether it is the belief that she is more trustworthy or that she is an outsider.
He maintains, for example, that Lauch Faircloth, a businessman in North Carolina, defeated Myrick -- whom Goeas helped informally -- not because of the rumors but because Faircloth tagged her with being a politician who had, among other things, raised taxes.
Sometimes, the distractions for women on the campaign trail are less insidious than sexual rumors -- but as annoying. Married women face such questions as, "How does your husband feel about you running? Who is going to take care of the kids if you win?" said Christine Jahnke, a Washington-based consultant who does media training for women candidates.
Peterson said that when she ran against Wilson in 1990, people said that "he certainly couldn't be beaten by a woman who looks more like someone he'd date than someone running against him for Congress."
Geri Rothman-Serot, a St. Louis County councilwoman challenging Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-MO, said: "No matter what I do, if I wear jeans or a suit, somebody will find fault. They'll talk about my hair, my makeup, my clothes."
As Rothman-Serot and other women candidates lament, all the time spent fending off comments about their appearance and private lives means they have less chance to focus on the issues -- or their opponents.