Hair has become a central issue in the race for the presidency.

This may be the first time that attention is directed at the candidates' locks and not that of their wives. (Undoubtedly, there are feminists standing by -- BlackBerries poised for mass e-mailing -- to advise whether this is good or bad for womynkind. Risking their wrath, one notes that both Elizabeth Edwards and Teresa Heinz Kerry have lovely hair and neither seems at risk of developing an immovable helmet of curls.)

Over the past few days, Sen. John Kerry -- with his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, smiling at his side -- has been pointing out the copious amount of hair on the Democratic ticket:

"We've got better vision, better ideas, real plans. We've got a better sense of what's happening to America -- and we've got better hair."

"It's a thrill for me to have another guy with hair on the road."

There was a time when candidates would be loath to comment on or even acknowledge their own locks, believing that such remarks would be evidence of narcissism or shallowness. This always seemed shortsighted, as voters -- being human -- cannot help but react to looks. Now Kerry has made hair a bragging point. It has become a safe, self-deprecating joke.

Hair has also become competitive. Kerry is on the campaign trail talking about all that he and Edwards hope to do for America and gleefully noting that the newly minted Democratic team has thick, dashing, photogenic hair and that the Republican competition does not.

President Bush has enough hair to fully cover his head, but it is a dull gray thatch that is unremarkable and never seems to glisten even when he is standing in direct sunlight. Even though the president keeps it clipped short, there always seems to be a thin spray of unruly strands that poke out in multiple directions.

Vice President Cheney has thinning white hair, and the few strands that are there are so lacking in body and bounce that in the presidential hair wars, they don't even register as wisps. For all intents and purposes, Cheney is bald. His is not the sexy Ed Harris version of bald but rather the curmudgeonly Wilford Brimley kind.

In truth, the Democrats don't have the spectacular hair that might be found on a movie star, a musician or even one of the bike messengers dodging traffic on K Street. Big John and Little John don't have the kind of hair that can compete with Hugh Grant or Lenny Kravitz. They have typically conservative Washington haircuts. These are cuts intended to convey soberness, authority and honesty. That is why these styles also are favored by news anchors, bankers and others who strive to win the public's trust. These haircuts are not meant to dazzle. But for Washington, the candidates' hair is noticeably lush.

Edwards's hair has regularly been referred to as a mop, but that suggests that it is messy or unkempt. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has a precise haircut with artfully clipped layers. His hair is a beautiful shade of chocolate brown with honey-colored highlights. It is not particularly long, but it is smooth and shiny. It is boyish hair not because of the style but because it looks so healthy and buoyant and practically cries out to be tousled the same way a well-groomed golden retriever demands to be nuzzled.

Kerry's hair has gone from black to a salt-and-pepper blend -- a fact underscored every time a news program runs the ubiquitous footage of Kerry as an antiwar spokesman in 1971. Even before he brought Edwards aboard his campaign, stirring up images of the two in a greenroom sharing a pot of Aveda anti-humectant pomade, Kerry would make wistful comments about his hair's transformation from black to silver: Where did all that black hair go?

Not to worry. His hair may have turned silver, but he has arrived at age 60 seemingly without having lost a strand. What man wouldn't gloat, just a little?

While hair is ostensibly the topic, anyone who knows the story of Samson and Delilah or who has ever read a bodice-ripper romance, knows that hair is a symbol of virility. All of this talk about who has the bigger, thicker, better hair is simply a coy way of asserting which campaign is chockablock with virility and which is in need of Viagra.

Such matters do not decide elections -- but sex appeal draws a crowd, entices listeners to linger and romances them into wanting to reciprocate the love. Looking presidential is a murky requirement of a candidate. He must look confident, dignified and strong. His carriage must be sure and graceful. His tailoring just so. And based on Kerry's favorite new joke, it helps to have a bountiful head of hair.

John Kerry, with running mate John Edwards, says of the Democratic ticket: We've got better vision, better ideas . . . and we've got better hair."Sen. John Kerry, right, with his running mate Sen. John Edwards, touts the lush hair of the Democratic ticket. Both have conservative cuts that convey authority and honesty. Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, below, have 'dos that stand up to the elements. Vice President Cheney's few strands don't really hide the bald truth.President Bush's gray thatch covers his head, but his silver never shimmers.