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‘Speaking as a man’: Gendered insults at Republican debate highlight a risky strategy

Three-inch heels. Shirtless video clips. A literal below-the-belt manhood debate.

Attacks among Republican presidential candidates have turned personal — including during Tuesday night’s primary debate in Miami, as candidates exchanged gendered insults onstage, drawing some concerns of sexism within the Republican Party amid its struggle to appeal to more female voters.

Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, for instance, dismissed both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley as a “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.”

Haley parried that in fact, she wears “five-inch heels,” taunted her male rivals not to wear them “unless you can run in them,” and noted that they’re not a “fashion statement — they’re for ammunition.”

And Ramaswamy began an answer on abortion by offering a male perspective, declaring he was “speaking as a man,” and adding that “sexual responsibility for men” and “genetic paternity tests” should also be included in the discourse around abortion.

As the field of Republican hopefuls vying to emerge as a more palatable alternative to former president Donald Trump winnows, the group also finds itself fighting a cruder, more gendered battle.

In recent months, the 2024 Republican slate has engaged in a round-robin of gendered insults and, at times, clumsy attempts at machismo. And while Haley and her male counterparts have both lobbed and dodged the jibes, the underlying conceit often seemed to be that femininity equals weakness.

Haley, Ramaswamy and Trump, for instance, have all mocked DeSantis for wearing lifts in his cowboy boots — a charge he denies. The DeSantis and Trump orbits have gone back and forth over who has “the balls” to show up for a debate. And Ramaswamy has twice tried to burnish his bro bona fides by posting videos of himself shirtless engaging in what he claims is debate prep — once on the tennis courts and more recently on a jet ski.

“I do think it is clear that sexism is alive and well in the Republican Party,” said Erica Scharrer, a communication professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who is an expert in gender and media. “Equating femininity with weakness is inherently sexist, and seems to be a kind of prolonged strategy that is playing out in the campaign so far.”

Or, as Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, posted on X during the Tuesday night heels exchange: “So if you didn’t catch it. Ramaswamy: Heels = feminine. Feminine = weak/unqualified. Haley: Heels = weapon. Weapon = masculine. Masculine = qualified/strong. #masculinitytrap.”

In many ways, the former president has set the tone from the top. Trump — who has a habit of using misogynistic nicknames and a lengthy trail of sexual misconduct allegations against him — was found liable earlier this year of sexually abusing advice columnist E. Jean Carroll in 1996, with a federal jury awarding her $5 million in a judgment. In nearly a decade in national politics, Trump has provided a blueprint for fellow Republicans eager to follow his lead into the netherworld of sexist invective — or at least a permission structure for those curious to try on a cloak of coarseness.

He has repeatedly called Haley a “birdbrain,” including at a counterprogramming rally Tuesday night in Hialeah, Fla., where the diss was met largely with confused silence. And he has long dismissed female foes in sexist and gendered terms — as “disgusting, both inside and out” with a “fat, ugly face” (Rosie O’Donnell); as “Pocahontas” with “a nasty mouth” (Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts); and as “horseface” (Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star with whom he had an alleged affair).

“If you think of Vivek as a stand-in or understudy for Donald Trump, this makes perfect sense, because Donald Trump stood on a debate stage and made fun of Carly Fiorina’s face,” said Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, referring to when Trump mocked the appearance of Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and one of his 2016 rivals.

But the strategy is rife with risks, many Republican operatives say.

“These other candidates are trying to emulate Trump’s toughness,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist. “But whenever you try to emulate Trump, you’re creating problems for yourself.”

Conant served as the communications director for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and he witnessed Rubio’s public humiliation when he tried to out-Trump Trump, unsuccessfully mocking him for his “small hands.”

“Voters want authenticity, and a lot of this comes off as phony,” Conant said. “Clearly the candidates are projecting on what they think voters want, instead of being authentic.”

Conant added that the language that may appeal to parts of the Republican base could backfire in a general election, where suburban women and independent swing voters will probably prove critical: “It’s also questionable how much Trump can pull it off,” he said. “Trump underperforms with women — always has — and I think part of the reason why is locker-room talk is not appealing to suburban moms.”

In fact, network exit polls show that Republicans have lost female voters in every presidential election since 1988, and in 2020, women supported President Biden over Trump, 57 percent to 43 percent. Men have always voted more Republican than women, but Republicans haven’t always won a majority, most recently splitting between the two parties in 2008.

By 40 percent to 18 percent, more Americans said the Democratic Party had a better plan for women’s rights than the Republican Party, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll from August.

Yet the gender attacks show no sign of slowing. What wearing heels does or does not signify proved a buzzy moment in Tuesday’s debate, with both Trump and Haley mocking DeSantis in the run-up for his allegedly height-enhancing Lucchese boots.

Asked on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” last week if she thought DeSantis would be wearing higher heels than her at the debate, Haley demurred, but quipped: “I’ve always talked about my high heels. … I’ve always said, ‘Don’t wear them if you can’t run in them.’ So we’ll see if he can run in them.”

Then, during the debate, Ramaswamy levied the “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels” charge at both Haley and DeSantis.

“Heels have apparently become the name of the race for both Nikki, who has been putting it out there, and Ron, who was been on the defensive about it,” said Tricia McLaughlin, a senior adviser to the Ramaswamy campaign.

But, she added, “Vivek does not think in terms of identity” and is not viewing the race “in gendered terms.” His dig, McLaughlin added, “is playful but it’s also sharp, and it’s also calling it how Vivek sees it.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis and Trump have taken testosterone one-upmanship below the belt. In a dig at Trump’s refusal to attend his party’s primary debates, the DeSantis campaign recently began selling a pair of branded golf balls in a box that blares, “DeSantis has a pair. He shows up.”

A DeSantis spokesman said the back-and-forth was intended to convey a serious reality, that Republican voters would prefer to see Trump debate.

But a DeSantis spokeswoman also posted the golf balls on X, addressing the “Team Trump ‘men’” and taunting, “If you ever decide to man up, you and your boss can buy a pair of balls here.” The attack prompted a Trump campaign spokesman to offer a similarly crude rejoinder on X: “Ron DeSantis is so broke he needs to sell his balls to strangers in order make rent and keep the lights on.”

On the more G-rated end of the spectrum, Ramaswamy seemed eager to display himself shirtless, in a flourish of machismo.

Before the first Republican primary debate in August, he posted on X a 21-second clip of himself playing tennis topless, blasting forehands from behind the baseline under the caption, “Three solid hours of debate prep this morning.” And before Tuesday’s debate, he and conservative media personality Benny Johnson put out another “debate prep” video featuring them both — again, shirtless — doing cannonballs and jet-skiing in Miami’s waters.

So why the frequent bare torso? “I think Vivek is authentically documenting himself just living his life,” McLaughlin said with a laugh. “He’s true to who he is, and he’s showing the American people who he is, shirt or no shirt.”

Sarah Longwell, publisher of the anti-Trump conservative website the Bulwark, said the move toward gendered insults is specific to the political moment.

“They’ve really started to push the bounds of civility in language, and part of that is trying to keep up with Trump and part of that is just trying to break through and have a moment,” she said.

The risk is that Trumpian attacks can make the candidates seem inauthentic, added Longwell. She said that Haley is “clearly the most substantive person on the stage,” but that she doesn’t think the gendered attacks work for her.

“She is at her worst when she delivers these canned lines about her heels, because you can just tell they have been focus-grouped to death to appeal to college-educated suburban women, and it just doesn’t come off well,” said Longwell, who conducts weekly focus groups with voters. “What Nikki Haley should do is let her competency and capable command of the issues speak for itself.”

And, ultimately, the political peril may be moot a year from now on Election Day.

“There is greater casual crudeness in politics these days,” Soltis Anderson said. “But part of me thinks this is all background noise, and something someone said in a third Republican debate is not going to make a difference when Donald Trump likely is the nominee.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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