By Booth Moore

Delivering a dressing-down

California: With one muscular exception, leading candidates in the recall election lack style, image-makers carp.

LOS ANGELES - Never mind the budget deficit and the energy crisis. In perhaps the most image-conscious state in the nation, Gray Davis' most serious offense may be that he has no discernible style. The eye grows weary of his endless parade of gray suits, his Mister Rogers hair, his turkey neck and his puffy eyes.

"He would definitely be a candidate for some of the improvements we do," says Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Robert Kotler.

"Style? What style?" asks Danny Marsh, co-owner of Sy Devore, the Los Angeles menswear store that outfitted the Rat Pack. "Gray Davis has no style. I'd like to see him in a closer-fitting suit, some shirts with more color and ties that make some sort of statement rather than just melting into the woodwork. ... And he looks like a 15 1/2 - inch neck wearing a 16 1/2 -inch shirt."

"I would put lowlights in his hair so it doesn't look so white," says Nelson Chan, a colorist at Estetica in Beverly Hills. "It's too much salt, not enough pepper."

In the land where plastic surgery is given as a 16th-birthday present and yoga is practically a religion, the consensus among image-makers is that Davis isn't up to snuff. And with one bulging exception, most of those hoping to unseat him aren't, either.

Cruz Bustamante, Marsh says, is "busting out of his collars." And, says Pikke Allen, an image consultant in Los Angeles, "He's reflecting the look of midlevel management."

Harsh?

Of course! This is the state where a pair of Bruno Magli shoes was once offered as evidence in a murder trial; where Winona Ryder's courtroom wardrobe generated as much interest as her crime; and where Kobe Bryant's purchase of a $4 million purple diamond ring for his wife made the newspapers.

For some reason - Sacramento, perhaps? - California politicians don't dress like the rest of California. Davis, Bustamante and former L.A. Olympic czar Peter Ueberroth typically don Washington's politico uniform of a dark suit, a white dress shirt and a patriotic red tie. But now they have to compete with a Hollywood heavyweight who has a penchant for Armani suits and understands that all the world's a red carpet. Not to mention porn star Mary Carey and billboard queen Angelyne, who have attention-grabbing assets of their own.

"If governors' races were determined solely by looks, Kathleen Brown would have beaten Pete Wilson," says economist and author Virginia Postrel, whose new book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, will be released next month. "But there is an ability to punch through and attract the camera, which in this field of so many people is more important than when you only have two choices."

"It doesn't mean they have to look outrageous," says Alan Flusser, author of Dressing the Man. "A pin collar, or even a white handkerchief in the breast pocket, could elevate the presentation."

Of the front-runners, Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be casting himself in the anti-pinstripe role. "His personality is so big, it's almost like he's saying, 'I don't have to wear a suit,'" says Vincent Boucher, a wardrobe stylist for celebrities.

When he filed his papers to run for governor, he wore a sports jacket, a white oxford shirt without a tie and stone-colored trousers. Wife Maria Shriver was at his side, lending Kennedy sheen in a Jackie-esque sleeveless polka-dot dress, with a brown leather purse tucked neatly under her arm. Columnist-turned-candidate Arianna Huffington, ever the knowledgeable media personality, took advantage of the photo op, appearing at the couple's side in an almond-colored double-breasted suit with a white T-shirt underneath.

"When you think of the three of them in that photo, they match each other. ... If Cruz Bustamante or Tom McClintock were in the photo, there would have been this strange clash of two worlds, Hollywood polish vs. the rumpled guys," Postrel says.

The action star does have his critics.

"I'm obsessed with Schwarzenegger's jewelry," says Simon Doonan, fashion director of Barneys New York. "He's been wearing this massive blue ring, which is OK for a window dresser but a little bit too Liberace for running for governor."

Huffington, who favors Gian- franco Ferre pantsuits, Petit Bateau T-shirts and Manolo Blahnik flats, has perfected the California casual look, including the well-designed shades. (She spent nearly $2,000 on eyewear last year, according to her income tax return made public last week, and $10,000 on unspecified medical expenses.) "She wears T-shirts instead of bow tie blouses, which is a lot better than most female politicians, who are stuck in the 1980s stylistically," Allen says.

There's no denying that style plays a part in the electoral process. After a flight-suit-clad President Bush landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in May, many pundits announced that he had produced his first re-election campaign image. Since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, when John F. Kennedy wore makeup but Richard Nixon passed on it, candidates wouldn't dream of facing TV cameras without a touch-up.

Like it or not, in today's celebrity-dominated media climate, style can and often does trump substance. In her book, Postrel quotes a 2001 graduation address Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, gave at Yale: "The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters," the former first lady said. "This is a life lesson my family did not teach me, Wellesley and Yale failed to instill in me: the importance of your hair. Your hair will send very important messages to those around you. It will tell people who you are and what you stand for. What hopes and dreams you have for the world."

But with just days left to campaign, there's not much time for makeovers. And even if there were, reaction to the "reveal" (TV talk for the makeover moment of truth) could be unpredictable. "People like politicians to look good, but to be settled, not fickle in the way they look," Postrel says. "We expect them not to look like actors per se, but to look as polished as if they were cast in the roles that they play."

For Davis, that means staying the style course.

"I don't think he can change his stripes," says Boucher, the stylist. "In some ways, to survive the recall, he needs to continue saying he's right, and he needs to stay with his style."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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