This column isn't about health care or welfare reform or homeland security.

It's about the touchy-feely relationship between John Kerry and John Edwards.

Silly stuff, you may say. I don't think so.

Speeches and policy proposals are important, but when people vote for president, they also rely, perhaps subconsciously, on their sense of the man. Or men.

Anyone can see that John and John are hugging, backslapping, grabbing each other's arms and laughing. Kerry even marveled that Edwards has "soft hands"! (All right, he was talking about his ability to catch a football on the tarmac.)

You'd be crazy if you thought all this was an accident. They're trying to present a youthful, dynamic image, one that the original JFK called vig-ah. So why shouldn't we talk and write about it?

John 1 does seem looser in John 2's presence, and that's probably a good thing, given the Massachusetts man's tendency toward stiffness. And they complemented (as well as complimented) each other well in that Lesley Stahl sitdown on Sunday.

Wonkette | http://wonkette.com/index.php?page=3 calls them "the Tracy-Hepburn of the Democratic Party," with accompanying photos.

For the record, I've never seen Dick Cheney hug anyone. So the Gleam Team (who sparred during the primaries, with Kerry talking about Edwards having been in diapers during Vietnam) is trying to send a message that they're friendly, approachable guys who really dig each other.

Just check out this video | http://www.noedesign.com/dev/KerryEdwards/, which one Web site posted, set to the strains of "Let's Get It On." (It's worth your while.)

Columbia Journalism Review | http://campaigndesk.org/ sees something highly questionable here:

"Last Wednesday, Wonkette posted a series of photographs of John Kerry and John Edwards embracing, accompanied by the hilarious headline, 'Most liberal ticket ever, indeed.' The next day, Matt Drudge followed suit with his own 'developing' Kerry-Edwards 'story' titled, 'Can't keep hands off each other.' That night, NBC's Jay Leno ran a gag Kerry-Edwards ad on 'The Tonight Show' -- set to Joe Cocker's 'You Are So Beautiful' -- with footage of the candidates arm-in-arm. And on Friday, as Campaign Desk noted, The Washington Times's Wesley Pruden took the baton from Drudge and produced an absurd piece -- 'Nothing says lovin' like a little huggin'' -- in which Drudge's 'report' is quoted.

"On Friday, the Associated Press's Liz Sidoti caught on, filing a copycat piece headlined, 'Kerry, Edwards show public affection,' which ran in papers from Boston to Los Angeles.

"Here is Sidoti's suggestive lead: 'Bear hugs. Pats on the back. Shoulder squeezes. John Kerry and John Edwards are all over each other.' Days earlier, Drudge had breathlessly begun his piece with this: 'Hugs, kisses to the check, affectionate touching of the face, caressing of the back. . . . John Kerry and John Edwards can't keep their hands off each other!' (Oddly, it seems Sidoti forgot to include the exclamation point in her story.) . . .

"We know this 'story' has arms. Let's hope it doesn't have legs."

But this is all just another way of saying that pop culture is having its way with the campaign, just as it did with the recount and impeachment and every other major story. (Remember the Gore kiss?) In an era when Jon Stewart is on the cover of Newsweek -- Edwards actually announced on the "Daily Show" -- and Gore and Sharpton hosted "Saturday Night Live" and the candidates are hot to chat up Leno, Letterman and Oprah, this is part of the way politics is played -- and exploited -- in the 21st century. Lighten up.

The big Hill story is the GOP maneuver that fizzled:

"Opponents of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages blocked a Senate vote on the measure yesterday, delivering President Bush a legislative defeat but ensuring that the issue will continue to be debated during this year's battle for control of Congress and the White House," says the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-071404gaymarriage_lat,1,3738224.story?coll=la-home-headlines.

"The Senate vote to cut off debate was 48-50, far short of the 60 votes needed, dooming the measure at least for the year. . . .

"Bush and Senate Republican leaders are expected to use the Senate vote in appeals for support from social conservatives, especially in battleground states that could prove pivotal to Republican hopes in the elections this year."

Psst! They knew from the start it wasn't going to pass!

Not a shining moment for Bush, says the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/15/politics/campaign/15assess.html?hp, but perhaps not a disaster:

"After endorsing the measure in February, he would often go weeks without mentioning it in public, suggesting either a personal or political reluctance, or both, about pushing it too hard. And when he did raise the topic, he was careful to modulate his message to avoid alienating moderate voters, warning in particular against allowing the issue to become an excuse for gay bashing. . . .

"By hedging his position, if only a bit, Mr. Bush may have insulated himself somewhat from the sting of the defeat the proposed amendment suffered in the Senate on Wednesday. But the way in which the proposal went down with a whimper, short of a simple majority, much less the two-thirds of the Senate needed for approval, raised questions about whether the White House had fundamentally misjudged the nation's attitude on the issue. And the vote left even some of Mr. Bush's own advisers wondering if his backing of the amendment did not hurt him politically more than it helped by further stoking opposition to him from the left."

Kerry is making a major push to reach out to blacks with a new ad and a new convention keynoter, as I report in The Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50181-2004Jul14.html.

If Edwards has seemed a little too perfect over the past week, the New York Daily News | http://nydailynews.com/front/story/212416p-182902c.html has discovered his own Billy Carter:

"Sen. John Edwards' little brother has an outstanding warrant for his arrest in Colorado and has thumbed his nose at more than $800 in fines for driving infractions.

"Wesley Blake Edwards, 39, has been a terror on the road for more than two decades. He has been arrested four times for drunken driving, twice been sentenced to a week in jail for DWI and lost his right to drive in four states.

"But even after his license was suspended and revoked, he repeatedly got back behind the wheel -- only to be stopped by police again."

Here's a media rule of thumb: Hillary makes news when she does something, and when she doesn't do something. Here are conflicting reports, starting with the Daily News | http://nydailynews.com/front/story/212450p-182892c.html:

"A top New York Democrat slammed White House hopeful John Kerry's campaign yesterday for leaving Sen. Hillary Clinton off the speaker lineup at the upcoming party convention in Boston. 'It's a slap in the face, not personally for Hillary Clinton, but for every woman in the Democratic Party and every woman in America,' said former state Democratic chairwoman Judith Hope. 'It's a total outrage.' "

Newsday | http://www.newsday.com/news/local/state/ny-ushill0715,0,6864036.story?coll=ny-statenews-headlines takes a deep breath first: "As it became clear that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had been left off the list of major speakers at the Democratic National Convention, prominent New York party members tried to downplay her sidelining."

Is BC04 feeling the heat? The Note | http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/TheNote/TheNote.html has some notations:

"Surely they've got to be feeling the pressure over at the White House, and if you wanted to strain to find signs of strain, here's where you COULD look:

"-- spending over 70% of its ad dollars attacking John Kerry?

"-- the inability to pull the trigger on a second-term agenda? ('stay tuned' does not an agenda make)

"-- trotting out Barbara and Jenna?

"-- the increasing prominence given social issues and 'values' in the campaign?

"-- playing the president off the stage with Elton John's classic 'Philadelphia Freedom' yesterday?

"-- intra-Cheney disagreement over states rights and gay union (not small issues)?

"-- the mini flurry of Rove on the record? (For the record -- we would like more.)

"-- regular attacks out of the presidential mouth on Kerry and Edwards? (although no invocation of 'Ozone Man' -- yet!)

"-- stepped-up critiques of the media coverage?

"-- Mr. Cheney telling New England senators to perform impossible-to-perform sex acts?"

Conservatives continue to jump on Kerry's and Edwards's personal taxes, as in this National Review | http://nationalreview.com/nrof_luskin/luskin200407140830.asp piece by Donald Luskin:

"John Kerry wins the presidency, his household will be the richest ever to occupy the White House. Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, controls a vast fortune estimated by a Los Angeles Times study to fall somewhere between $900 million to $3.2 billion. Through a series of entirely legal maneuvers, Kerry is attempting to conceal from American voters the full extent of his wife's wealth and her corporate holdings -- and the fact that she apparently manages to pay a remarkably small amount of taxes.

"Such evidence as one is able to assemble from publicly available information raises deeply disturbing questions. The Kerry campaign has disclosed Mrs. Kerry's 2003 income as $5,115,000. Using a conservative estimate of her wealth at $1 billion -- at the low end of the Los Angeles Times' estimates -- then we can easily see that her investments yielded only a miniscule one half of one percent last year. . . .

"We can't know exactly what is out of whack with Mrs. Kerry's income, if anything, because she and her husband have always chosen to file separate tax returns. Mrs. Kerry's separate returns have never been made part of the public record.

"The Kerry campaign said in March that it will make the first two pages of Mrs. Kerry's Form 1040 available to the public in October, when her tax preparers finalize it. This will give voters no more than a handful of days to consider what little is disclosed there, before going to the polls on November 2."

The New Republic's Gregg Easterbook | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=express&s=easterbrook071404 has discovered an important addition to Team Kerry:

"Magnetism, down-to-Earth charm, good-lookin', well-spoken, gifted campaigner, the common touch and a special sparkle simultaneously: Edwards sure is going to help the Democratic ticket. Elizabeth Edwards, I mean.

"Rightly or wrong, we live in a moment when candidates' wives are subject to considerable scrutiny. (Maybe someday candidates' husbands will be subject to scrutiny in America--Dennis Thatcher experienced that in Britain--but not in 2004.) Betty Ford and Barbara Bush were more popular than Gerald or George. Hillary was the she-devil of the right; surely there were ritual human sacrifices when her secret health-care reform committee met. Nancy Reagan was first dismissed, then grudgingly admired. Dr. Judith Steinberg was roundly denounced by the chattering classes for believing her first duty was to her patients, not to the Howard Dean campaign, though her choice made me wish she was my doctor.

"Most focus on candidates' wives falls somewhere on the spectrum between inane and condescending. But it's there nonetheless and must be taken into account: The media and voters have become obsessed with top-of-the-ticket wives, and except for Steinberg, the wives have responded by racing toward the cameras. I could be wrong about this, but I think the wife star of the 2004 campaign will be Mrs. Edwards. If they're not already thinking this, Democratic strategists may soon be pondering ways to get her out front, while getting Teresa Heinz back to foundation headquarters to review grant applications."

Stop the presses! The NYT | _http://nytimes.com/2004/07/15/politics/campaign/15vice.html?hp reports a rumor:

"The newest theory -- advanced privately by prominent Democrats, including members of Congress -- holds that Mr. Cheney recently dismissed his personal doctor so that he could see a new one, who will conveniently tell him in August that his heart problems make him unfit to run with Mr. Bush. The dismissed physician, Dr. Gary Malakoff, who four years ago declared that Mr. Cheney was 'up to the task of the most sensitive public office' despite a history of heart disease, was dropped from Mr. Cheney's medical team because of an addiction to prescription drugs.

" 'I don't know where they get all these conspiracy theories,' said Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's chief strategist, who has heard them all. 'It's inside-the-Beltway coffee talk, is all it is.' "

Sounds pretty overcaffeinated to me.

Da Coach has decided to punt:

"Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka said Wednesday he would not ask Republican leaders to make him their U.S. Senate nominee, forcing a political organization hobbled by scandal and infighting to search for another candidate to replace primary winner Jack Ryan," reports the Chicago Tribune | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/elections/chi-0407150216jul15,1,6652464.story?coll=chi-news-hed.

Salon Editor David Talbot | http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2004/07/14/naderphonecall/index.html got a call from Ralph Nader, complaining about two recent pieces in the magazine. Here's part of the conversation:

"Nader: Why didn't your reporters call for a response?

"Talbot: They did.

"Nader: Since [Lisa Chamberlain] was writing about the campaign, wouldn't you have the decency to call our campaign office?

"Talbot: It's always Salon's procedure, whenever we do a critical article on anyone -- whether it's the Bush administration or you or anyone -- to give them a chance to respond. That's always our policy.

"Nader: Look, I've been in journalism too, and when I was doing a critical piece on someone, I would call.

"Talbot: Look, Ralph, I'm just not buying your premise that our reporter didn't try to reach you. Someone in your organization is not giving you the right information. . . .

"Nader: Wait, wait, wait! No, I'm telling you, if you make a call and you don't get through, and you're not working under deadline because you're working on the damned thing for three or four weeks, you write a letter. You write a letter! That's what I do. You write a letter!

"Talbot: Our track record with you is that you've ducked every request we've made for an interview. We've called your office, we've gone through your friends, old Nader Raiders, people you trust and like. We've tried a number of ways to speak with you. And you've repeatedly avoided us. So what we decided when we contacted you again recently -- and again tried unsuccessfully to get you on the phone -- was that we were getting the same old runaround. You obviously weren't going to talk with us."

Finally, dirty jokes and corporate contracts may not mix, as USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/2004-07-14-goldberg-slimfast_x.htm reports:

"Comic Whoopi Goldberg's sexual puns on President Bush's name at a John Kerry fundraiser got her canned Wednesday as spokeswoman for Slim-Fast weight-loss products.

"Waving a bottle of wine, Goldberg launched her double entendres in New York City last Thursday at a gala that raised $7.5 million for Kerry's campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Other performers at the event called Bush a 'cheap thug' and a liar. A Bush campaign spokesman called the concert a 'star-studded hate fest.' Calls for boycotting Slim-Fast shakes and snacks spread through conservative Web sites."

I guess Whoopi can go back to eating whatever she wants.