October 26, 1992 12:00 PM

No matter what their political stripe, the participants in this year’s presidential race will tell you that they never think about clothes or styling. Really. Honest. And, judging from the way that the candidates and their wives sometimes look, you can almost believe it.

To be fair, they’re not running for Best Dressed here. Why should we care how Bill Clinton looks in his jogging shorts? (For the record: so-so.) Why worry if George Bush wears suits like liverwurst wears white bread—so long as you know he’s in there somewhere? Tipper Gore needs her hair thinned? Marilyn Quayle should hold the spray? Big deal.

Every so often, however, even the most serious-minded voters will cast an eye on those attempted cowboy outfits and hard-hat rigs. They’ll ask themselves questions the politicians didn’t face in their debates. Tough questions like: Is that guy wearing clam diggers, or is he just too big for his suits? Is her hairdo held in place with a staple gun, or what?

So for all that they claim not to care, the candidates and their wives—and their handlers—do give second thoughts to how they look. The first rule for the men is that their clothes should be bland and unremarkable. This is no doubt fine with Bush, who plainly shares the WASP male’s deeply held belief that clothes should be simple and functional, like doghouses. Suits should look as if they just happened by—and didn’t stop in Italy along the way. Shoes should be as plain and blocky as a Stalinist office building.

Though suits are de rigueur on the hustings, a smart candidate in these recessionary times also turns up for photo ops without a tie—as both Bush and Clinton have been careful to do. This implies that they’re sweating out the bad times along with everybody else. In this respect Ross Perot, the ultimate suit, may be sending the wrong message. Though his crisp office uniforms aren’t extravagant by billionaire standards—off-the-rack jobs, like most of those worn by Clinton and Bush, who have both sported Southwick suits—Perot is almost never seen in anything but straight jackets. Voters may like the idea of a candidate with business sense, but not one who dresses like a CEO about to order massive layoffs.

Barbara Bush seems to be the one campaigner this year who has the style problem beat. Her undone-up look has been a massive relief after Nancy Reagan, a woman who, by comparison, made polished chrome look unkempt. Faster than you could say quilted-down-jacket-with-a-triple-string-of-false-pearls, Barbara established a new style—White House but down-home, snow-topped but not frosty. She’s not so much dressed as agreeably upholstered, like a comfy sofa.

But make no mistake: The First Lady gets away with dressing down because she had perfect manners bred into her at her boarding school, Ashley Hall, where, as one classmate recalled, “Being bad meant taking off your hat and gloves when you got out of sight of the school.” Even on formal occasions, in pricey gowns by Arnold Scaasi or Bill Blass, Mrs. Bush manages to look like your favorite guidance counselor playing chaperon at the prom.

It’s been left to the Quayles, as this ticket’s Youngish Republicans, to demonstrate whether the GOP has a wild side. They’ve decided to pass. Don’t expect Dan Quayle to show up on The Arsenio Hall Show in dark glasses. But he is loosening up lately. He has relegated his usual pro shop look to the links and taken on the hard-at-work style—jacket off, sleeves rolled up. As for Marilyn Quayle, her big-flip ’60s flight attendant hairdo has earned her a lot of ribbing (friends donned look-alike wigs at her 40th-birthday party in 1989). But refusing to do a flip-flop on her flip may very well impress voters as a sign that Marilyn lives up to her Republican principles of tenacity and independence. It’s her party, and she’ll spray if she wants to.

Clinton, for his part, may blow up—at one point last spring, campaign-trail cuisine blimped him up 20 lbs. But his team swears that he never blow-dries. Still, he reportedly trimmed his thick mane down a bit after Democratic Party focus groups concluded that big hair scares voters. (Think of Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein.)

No one, however, has taken it on the chin worse than poor Hillary. Judging from pictures of her over the years, she has tried a variety of looks since her husband was first elected Arkansas Governor in 1978. The style she has finally arrived at is studiedly informal: combed but not manicured, attended to but not fussed over. If Jackie Kennedy was Jet Set, Hillary is Frequent Flyer—somebody who can live out of one bag if necessary and still look on arrival as if she hadn’t made the trip in cargo.

To give credit where credit is due, Hillary did have a little help from her friends for her current redesign. Cristophe, a tony Beverly Hills hairdresser, was brought in by fast friends Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband, Harry (executive producers of the CBS series Designing Women and Evening Shade) to update Hillary’s hair before the Democratic Convention. Cristophe lopped off five inches and shaped her bangs. The shorter cut enabled her to rely less on the headbands she had been using as a kind of hairdo prosthetic device. “It’s a genetic deficiency,” she once told Jane Pauley. “I just don’t seem to have hairstyling ability.” Next came Cliff Chally, costume designer for the Bloodworth-Thomason shows, who shuffled through Hillary’s wardrobe—she’s a small size 6 or 8, depending on the label—to help her spiff up her image on-camera. Hillary has also taken to sweaters lately. Wool has a cozy Mister Rogers look that Dan Rather also adopted when audiences were said to find him too cold.

The Gores, for their part, have the least visible but most promising fashion profile. As befits Al’s environmental crusade, their image says natural fibers. He’s the one who, in jogging shorts, outshines his running mate. She’s the one who, in sweatpants and T-shirts, looks J. Crew. “She’s not much of a shopper,” admits Tipper’s mother, Margaret Aitcheson. “Whenever I see her, she’s in pretty much the same thing I saw her in the week before.”

Which proves that Tipper was born to run: That nondescript appearance is the very essence of politically correct dressing. And while a preteen Al wore a fringed frontier jacket, don’t expect to see him in that sort of thing before Election Day. The whole idea of campaign style is to avoid anything on the fringe.

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