WASHINGTON – The race is on to become the first woman president.

And just who is contending with Hillary Rodham Clinton?

John Edwards on cover of Esquire under headline ‘The Sexiest Woman Alive’

According to Elizabeth Edwards, Kate Michelman, Rush Limbaugh and, now, what some see as a subliminal message in the cover of the latest issue of Esquire magazine, John Edwards may have the edge.

Last week, Mrs. Edwards was questioning Mrs. Clinton’s femininity, as well as her willingness to champion “women’s issues.”

Mrs. Edwards suggested Mrs. Clinton might be behaving “like a man” because she is trying to assure voters she is “as good as a man.”

The question of whether John Edwards could become the first woman president was first raised in a March 8 New York Sun article. The article was cited by Limbaugh, who has referred to Edwards as “the Breck girl,” because of his famous, well-coifed mane.

“Toni Morrison famously dubbed President Clinton America’s ‘first black president,’ the article said. “With that barrier broken, the comments of a prominent feminist are provoking debate about who may lay a similar claim to the title of America’s first woman president.”

It continued: “The candidate being touted as a torchbearer for women is not Senator Clinton, but one of her former colleagues, John Edwards. At a rally near the University of California, Berkeley, campus this week, a veteran of the abortion-rights movement, Kate Michelman, asked and answered the question she gets most frequently about her decision to back the male former senator from North Carolina.”

“Why John Edwards, given the historic nature of our extraordinary campaign for the presidency this year with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and all the others?” Michelman asked as she warmed up the crowd for Edwards. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of political leaders over the years that I’ve been an advocate for women’s rights. I know the difference between those who advocate as a political position and those who understand the reality of women’s lives.”

But the pi?ce de r?sistance for some on the issue of which candidate is the most feminine comes with the August cover story on Edwards. Purposely or inadvertently, above Edwards cover photo appear the words: “The Sexiest Woman Alive.” The headline promotes another story in the magazine, but the juxtopositioning amid the controversy between Clinton and Edwards struck some as astonishing.

“I can’t wait to see if Ann Coulter brings this up in one of her columns,” wrote one poster to a popular weblog.

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