George W. Bush is a cigar chewin', cowboy boot-wearin' former oil man from the Great State 'a Texas. Al Gore climbed Mount Rainier in Washington State last year and runs political ads boasting that, while many turned back, he strode to the summit because he's a leader.
John McCain is a war hero who screwed around in his youth and cusses with reporters aboard the Straight Talk Express. "Be a man," he scoffed at Michigan Governor John Engler, after Engler complained about McCain's big win in Michigan's primary a fortnight ago.
The primary contest to decide the Democrat and Republican presidential nominees has been such a five-week frenzy of testosterone that it is easy to forget that the knottiest problem on which they dwell is how, as president, they would spend the surplus.
Nobody has asked them - as Geraldine Ferraro was asked when she ran for vice-president in 1984 - whether they're man enough to press the nuclear button, because nobody thinks it's likely in the post-Cold War era.
The American presidential race is obsessed with personality, and America likes a leader who conforms, however shakily, to the hero myth.
The manhood of Democrat candidate Bill Bradley has gone unquestioned because he was a professional sportsman, the gold standard of the warrior. The other contenders are strutters and there is a strong undercurrent in this race to prove manhood, whatever that might mean in 2000, and to fulfil the expectations of giant fathers.
John McCain, at 63 the oldest in the race, embodies the 1950s values of courage, valour, sacrifice, all proven long ago by his resistance to his Vietnamese captors during almost six years of imprisonment.
McCain has portrayed the Republican contest with George W. Bush as one of man versus boy, with the subtext that America needs a real man after the presidency of the randy, but personally immature, Bill Clinton - a Baby Boomer wimp.
McCain is the only "grown up" on tax policy, he says. Bush is "not ready for prime time".
But even McCain is shadowed by his father and grandfather, both four-star admirals also called John McCain. Faith of My Fathers, his best-selling book held high by supporters at every campaign rally, is a story about his Vietnam experience, and the story of his forebears.
"They were my first heroes, and earning their respect has been the most lasting ambition of my life," McCain writes.
For the younger men, the presidential candidacy seems as much a personal test to prove themselves worthy of their fathers' faith as it is a contest for the nomination.
Texas Governor George W. Bush has not yet shaken the view that he has ridden on his father's coat-tails his whole life. He burns with a desire to avenge his father's humiliation at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992 and, although he once challenged his Dad to go "mano a mano" with him after a night's drinking, the younger Bush by all accounts worships his father.
The elder Bush did his campaign no good when he referred to his son as "our boy" at a New Hampshire rally, as though the 53-year-old was not yet a grown man.
Al Gore is the son of the late Al Gore snr, a Tennessee senator whose own presidential ambitions were thwarted. As Bush watched the agony of his father's loss, so Gore watched as his dad was crushed in the 1970 Senate election, partly because of his opposition to the Vietnam War.
At his father's funeral, he described him as "the greatest man I ever knew".
Gore's early quest for the Democratic nomination was portrayed in the media as a struggle to "find himself". He needed to be an "alpha male" as his adviser Naomi Wolf put it.
McCain, Bush, and Gore, in their own ways, are playing out notions of surpassing their fathers' achievements and living up to expectations.
The male thing has created some startling moments. Gore is chisel-featured and "buff", as Americans put it, and his blue jeans were so tight at one campaign event that the audience gasped when he walked in.
And one of the best stories about Bush describes when he took office as Governor in 1995 and the Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a tough Democrat, told him he disagreed with a Bush proposal. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to f--- you on this one," said Bullock.
Bush stood up, took Bullock by the shoulders and kissed him. "If you're going to f--- me, you're going to have to kiss me first," he said.
Now that's a real man.
Copyright © 2000. The Sydney Morning Herald.