Is America less ready for a black man, a woman or a trial lawyer as president?
That's the question for John Edwards, arguably the most progressive of the three Democratic frontrunners, the only white male, and, so far, the target of the most aggressive personal attacks.
While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have historic racism and sexism to overcome, Edwards confronts his own set of cultural biases.
His opponents paint him as an ambulance chaser and a showboat, with his high-priced haircuts and big, expensive house. They sneer at his "two Americas" theme as hypocritical. They ridicule his masculinity with a YouTube video of him fussing with his hair before a TV appearance, set to the tune of "I'm So Pretty".
It's not really fair. All politicians spend too much time on their hair and makeup. Remember Al Gore's spray-on tan? Bob Dole's face-lift? Presidential candidates are coiffed and wardrobed and fluffed and polished to death.
As for the rich-guy image: No member of the U.S. Senate besides Russ Feingold - that body's only non-millionaire - has any right to cast stones. Besides, Edwards comes from a modest, working-class background and was the first member of his family to go to college - a far cry from the oil-money/old Yale Bushes of Kennebunkport.
Still, there are reasons the caricature sticks.
One is sheer repetition. From Rush Limbaugh's " Breck girl" to Ann Coulter's "faggot," right-wingers have been attacking Edwards for years now as somehow too soft and feminine for the White House.
Like middle school bullies, they found something about Edwards' looks and carriage that makes their attacks resonate, in the same way the (fictional) stories about Al Gore's self-aggrandizing lies rang true with voters.
Then there is the American antipathy to lawyers. Doctors, particularly, have a visceral dislike for malpractice attorneys, whom they blame for their high insurance costs. And thanks in part to an effective "tort reform" lobbying campaign, a lot of people see trial lawyers as vultures just waiting for someone to screw up so they can file suit and make a lot of money from others' misfortune.
There is a counter to this story line, of course, best captured by the true-life page-turner A Civil Action, in which the flashy tort lawyer is the hero. Like the main character in the book, Edwards has represented some very sympathetic clients in corporate negligence and medical malpractice cases.
He fought for the little guy against teams of high-powered corporate attorneys and won record judgments for his clients, including the family of a three-year-old girl who was disemboweled by a pool drain.
In part because of this work, Edwards refuses to take corporate PAC money. Contrast that with Hillary Clinton, who despite her rhetoric, is one of the biggest recipients of health insurance company money in the Senate, as Michael Moore points out in his movie Sicko.
With Edwards the deeds match the words. He has earned the right to claim he speaks for the have-nots.
In his life, work, politics and charity (his giving is focused on making college more attainable for the working poor), Edwards is the only candidate whose central issue is the great divide between rich and poor.
Perhaps the discrimination Clinton and Obama face runs so deep that the right is targeting Edwards precisely because, as a rich white man, they see him as the only viable Democratic candidate. Even though he has been running third, they figure the most efficient way to disable the Democrats is to discredit him.
Wisconsin voters came out for Edwards in large numbers in 2004. He finished second to John Kerry. Since the Dean machine had abruptly run out of gas in neighboring Iowa, Edwards was the last viable progressive candidate when our primary rolled around.
It's still too early to know what will happen this year. If Hillary or Obama remains at the top of the polls, the Swift Boating of those candidates will soon begin. No doubt it will be as ugly as the campaign against Edwards.
But it would be a shame if Edwards were done in by his haircut. Because despite all the focus on style, he may well be the most substantial candidate in the race.
RUTH CONNIFF IS THE POLITICAL EDITOR OF THE PROGRESSIVE MAGAZINE.