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Suddenly, McCain/Obama battle over lipstick -- Porky's or Palin's

September 9, 2008 |  8:08 pm

Oh, boy! Or girl! For a presidential race where three of the four major candidates are of the male persuasion, they're spending an awful lot of time talking about lipstick.

Another measure perhaps of how the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the political mix in the Republican's No. 2 spot has shaken things up on both sides in just 12 days.

Democratic presidential nominee illinois Senator Barack Obama making a speaking point recently--without lipstick

New polls out Monday revealed a 20-point swing in support of white women away from the Barack Obama-Joe Biden Democratic ticket over toward the John McCain-Palin package, attributed largely to the blast of fresh air and down-to-earthness brought by the surprise presence of the 44-year-old reform governor and mother of five.

Today, Obama walked into some Republican machine-gun fire when he appeared to echo Palin's lipstick line from her widely viewed and quoted convention speech last week.

The self-described hockey mom ad libbed a joke in response to audience cheers from Alaska women: "You know what the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull?" she asked, pausing perfectly. "Lipstick!"

It was one of the best-received lines of the night and widely quoted and replayed for days afterward.

Today, campaigning in Lebanon, Va., and complaining about the GOP ticket portraying itself as agents of change, Obama (see video below) said ...

... "You can put lipstick on a pig. But it's still a pig."

Web browsers could almost hear a gasp of disbelief online.

Could Obama be so stupid as to imply that his newest opponent is like a barnyard animal, this candidate they've tried to portray as an inexperienced lightweight from a rural area who seems to increasingly preoccupy Obama's monologues instead of the GOP's top candidate?

Is that smart for the No. 1 on the Democratic ticket to be so distracted by the No. 2 on the GOP side? And where is Biden in this debate?

To be sure, other candidates including McCain himself have used that pig line or similar pig references about their opponent's programs, implying you can't hide what a hog is merely by applying some makeup.

But, to be honest, pig among men is another word for an ugly woman. And none of those past references came so close on the heels of such a widely read, widely viewed and widely heard lipstick line as Palin's and with the two party's national tickets set, one of them with the first female in its party's history.

Coming in a context where everything in public dialogue is perceived as political and the lawyerly Obama always appears to measure his words so carefully, it hardly seemed an accident.

Although it might plausibly be brushed off as a willful misinterpretation by opponents, as the Obama camp attempted to do during the primary season when its candidate appeared to Lipstick like the stuff Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said you can't put on a pig and fool someone withuse his middle finger to scratch his cheek while mentioning another female opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The GOP immediately activated its so-called truth squad Tuesday, a rapid-response unit similar to one Obama uses to counter perceived smears on him.

"Barack Obama's comments today are offensive and disgraceful," said Maria Comella, a McCain-Palin spokeswoman. "He owes Gov. Palin an apology."

On a campaign conference call recorded by The Times' Maeve Reston, former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, who also served while raising small children, said: "“It’s both a gendered comment and there’s only one woman in the race … and it’s directly analogous to the comment she had made."

Swift added: "“You would think that having gone through a hard-fought primary with Sen. Clinton that the Obama team would have figured out how to respectfully engage in a debate that represents the things they want to do, which is the politics of hope. This is just the same old low road, flinging accusations.”

Those traveling with the Obama campaign in recent days, like The Times' Peter Nicholas, have noted a new, more emotional tone creeping into his comments. His public persona is often described as cool. But since last week, hitting the battleground states of Ohio, Michigan and Virginia as poll numbers dipped, Obama has seemed increasingly combative.

On Monday in Michigan, Obama became exercised when talking about the need to give even suspected terrorists legal rights.

“We may think this is Mohammed the terrorist,’’ he said at a campaign rally, but “it might be Mohammed the cab driver. You might think it’s Barack the bomb-thrower. But it might be Barack the guy running for president.’’

Continuing, he got more heated, his voice booming. Referring to the Constitution, he said: “Don’t mock the Constitution! Don’t make fun of it! Don’t suggest that it’s un-American to abide by what the founding fathers set up! It’s worked pretty well for 200 years!’’

He finished with a sigh: “These people."

If you're one of "these people" or not, what do you think?

-- Andrew Malcolm

Photo credits: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press (top); Getty Images (bottom).

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