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America is no less susceptible to the ­politics of physical presentation than ­anywhere else. But the 2008 presidential campaign has already emerged as the most style-conscious since the 1960s – ­especially on the Democratic side, where grooming has become a topic of daily ­excitement. What is new is the extent to which the looks of the various Democratic candidates have come very nearly to ­dominate the primary season, and the extent to which commenting on them has entered the public discourse.

The august Washington Post has ­written at length on Hillary Clinton’s cleavage. John Edwards’s $400 (€280) haircuts are so famous there is no room in the public-image deconstruction frenzy for much notice to be paid to the fact that one of his coiffes actually cost $1,250.

The main role of Barack Obama’s image is to counter concerns that at 46, and with only four years in the Senate under his belt, he is too young and inexperienced for the presidency. But “Obambi’s” youth and newness to the scene are also a strength among many voters. He is the only candidate in either party who is well-dressed and genuinely charismatic, and he’s very good at not letting either strength go too far. As well as his youth, Obama’s image has to deal with the fact that he is black. Again he offers a masterclass: he ignores it.

Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, on the other hand, have turned their looks into a ­relentless, pushy sell-job that the public is starting to find exhausting. In the ­­style-obsessed Democratic race, their dress and hairstyles are attracting by far the most study in the media.

Clinton has worked assiduously to recast herself as a moderate conservative over the past five years. Her style is designed to accentuate this new quasi-­Republican image, which she hopes will deliver America’s centre-ground voters. The result is ugly. When politicians lose public trust because of their clothes, it is usually a result of looking too good – as the supremely groomed Mitt Romney is doing for the Republicans. What is interesting about Clinton’s new look is that she dresses as badly as possible but she still manages to make us feel ­distrustful.

This might not be the catastrophe it looks in photos. Clinton needs family-values Middle America, and dressing too well would be a dangerous reminder that she got this far by overseeing notoriously louche households for almost 20 years.

In late 2006 John Edwards was caught primping himself on a five-minute video devastatingly posted on YouTube. For the 2008 campaign, Edwards – by far the most wealthy candidate – is selling himself as the champion of the struggling poor.

Edwards made his fortune as a trial lawyer, suing companies on behalf of the little guy. The studied pose of the litigator comes through in the way Edwards holds himself, squaring up to the room. In contrast to Obama’s natural ease and Clinton’s frank ambition, Edwards projects the mechanical poise of the high-school debater. The senator is hoping to get to the White House by feeling the pain of mill-workers, but in pre-aged jeans and urbane loafers he makes us wonder whether he’ll ever roll up his sleeves for real.
Next month, the Republican candidates

Tee zone

USA

The Black Dog Tavern, a Martha’s Vineyard restaurant, is best known for its promotional clothing: a T-shirt unaltered since the 1970s, with a simple sketch of the founder’s black labrador-boxer cross and “The Black Dog Tavern, Martha’s Vineyard” written across the back. The year of purchase provides the only typographical variation.

Until the launch of its website in 2000, the only way to get hold of a Black Dog T-shirt was via mail order or to turn up on Martha’s Vineyard. The logo acted as proof of the wearer’s fashionable holiday choice. The earlier the date on the back, the better.

Rob Douglas Jr – son of the founder of Black Dog and current CEO – is an astute marketeer. He commissioned the design of his eponymous dog on camouflage T-shirts and shipped a squad’s worth out to Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan late last year. Even though US regulations prevent companies from directly sponsoring military outfits, Douglas sidestepped this with a simple gift: the T-shirts were mailed to the son-in-law of a Vineyarder, Lieutenant Commander Bo Hornbuckle, who was stationed in Kandahar and distributed them around the base. Within a few weeks photos came back of troops mixing their olive-drab fatigues with their new T-shirts.

Black Dog camouflage tees are available to the public at theblackdog.com, where a portion of proceeds go to the Wounded Warriors veterans’ fund. But for authenticity, you’ll have to go to war – or at least the Vineyard – to get one.

Energy boost

Brazil

Brazilian president Luis Inácio Lula de Silva begins 2008 contemplating an embarrassment of riches. The country is already the world’s largest producer of ethanol, but late last year, state-run company Petróleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras, found a whopping 8bn barrels of oil – equal to Norway’s proven reserves – off the coast of Rio de Janeiro.

The find, if confirmed, would boost Brazil’s reserves by 50 per cent and catapult it into the ranks of the world’s major oil exporters. Pressure to join Opec is mounting.

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