WASHINGTON — When Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination in 1980, a previous divorce raised concerns in his campaign. A divorced man had never been elected president, and his advisers worried someone would try to make it into an issue. That never came to pass.
"There was some whispering about it," says Charles Black, a veteran of that and other GOP presidential campaigns. "But that wasn't near as big a thing as his age."
Fast forward to 2007, and both issues are still on the table. For Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is trailing former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in early polling among Republicans, it's his age, not his 1980 divorce, that could cause problems. But for Mr. Giuliani, his recent, messy divorce – and the resulting estrangement from his children – is now the subject of media focus.
This raises questions about whether candidates' personal lives will matter when voters go to the polls, and if so, how much.
For candidates with less-than-picture-perfect personal histories, the answer may well be, it depends.
In the Republican field, another potential hopeful – former House speaker Newt Gingrich – confessed to past adultery in a recent radio interview with religious conservative leader James Dobson, an apparent effort to clear the air and pave the way for a possible presidential run. Mr. Gingrich, like Giuliani, is on his third marriage, and so both are pushing the political envelope on the marital front.
But in Giuliani's case, children are involved. When his college-age son, Andrew, recently told The New York Times that he and his younger sister were estranged from their father over his divorce from their mother and did not plan to campaign with him, the political world took notice.
Reagan, too, was estranged from two of his children; daughter Patti Davis wrote a fictionalized account that amounted to a hurtful public condemnation. But that situation was a nonissue with voters. The jury is still out on Giuliani.
"It depends on whether it's part of a larger package that makes it look of a piece with a bad picture," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas, Austin. "In the case of Reagan, he was cuddly and likable otherwise, so he could get away with it. With Giuliani, less so."
Temperament may also be a factor in voter calculations about personal history. After Giuliani's rise to the top of the GOP field, press accounts began appearing that show an intensely prickly side. So while Giuliani gets high marks in national polls for leadership, in large part because of his post-9/11 performance, a fuller picture is beginning to emerge for those outside New York City who did not experience his day-to-day leadership as mayor for eight years.
In addition, the presence of "victims" – Giuliani's children – could make his second divorce politically problematic. When President Clinton was caught cheating on his wife, Mrs. Clinton stood by him and defended him. That came in contrast to Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado, whose 1988 presidential campaign came to a crashing halt over marital infidelity. The picture of his wife appearing visibly aggrieved in public caused incalculable damage to his campaign.
Now, the issue of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's personal life – and her relationship with her husband, the ex-president – will also surely be continuing fodder for press coverage. Mr. Black, the GOP adviser, believes that, on balance, her continuing marriage to Bill Clinton remains a net plus.
"I don't' think [her marriage] will be a defining issue in her candidacy," says Black. "Since the Clintons emerged on the national scene, every time he acted up, thereby mistreating her, she went up in the polls."
In addition, Bill Clinton is so popular with the Democratic base that he's going to galvanize people to come vote for her if she's the nominee, he adds.
But for any candidate with personal issues they would rather not discuss, the early start to the presidential campaign is bad news. The press is constantly on the lookout for new angles, and tabloid fodder is often too hard to resist.
"Journalists get very, very tired of hearing the issue speeches over and over again," says Bruce Gronbeck, a professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa. Covering candidates' divorces and marriages and children "fits into the great American political culture, where the personal is political."
Candidates also must know the polling data that shows that voters consider character more important than positions on issues. And on the specific issue of multiple marriages, the polling data are not kind to those who have had three.
The latest analysis from Gallup, which measured an aggregate sample of 2,000 voters in February and March, found that 29 percent of voters said they would not vote for a candidate who has been married three times.
This does not mean that Giuliani and Gingrich should give up, analysts say, but it does give them a sense of the challenges they face.