WASHINGTON – Like “lipstick on a pig,” the hot new debate of the presidential campaign has sparked one stunning distraction. As anyone knows, lipstick can smear.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee running with a call for “change,” insists he wasn’t talking about Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president, when he said this about his rivals’ claims that they are the true agents of change: “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”

The campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain is crying foul, reading sexism into the remark and demanding an apology. Yet McCain once had the same words for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s health care plans. Campaigning in Iowa last fall, McCain argued that Clinton was rehashing the old reform she had promoted as first lady: “I think they put some lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”

It was Palin, the governor of Alaska and mother of five, who charmed the Republican National Convention with her explanation of the difference between a “pit bull” and a “hockey mom” – “lipstick.” The McCain camp contends that Obama was clearly referring to that comment and Palin.

Playing ‘gender card’

Now McCain and Palin are playing the “gender card,” the Obama campaign contends. Obama spokesmen note that “putting lipstick on a pig” is a common expression for trying to dress up something bad – and Obama voiced it in the context of the candidates’ economic plans – and they accuse McCain of “phony outrage.”

It was only a few weeks ago that the situation was in some ways reversed. Obama warned voters that his rivals would try to scare them about voting for a candidate who doesn’t look like the president on a dollar bill. The McCain campaign responded that Obama had “played the race card . . . from the bottom of the deck.”

“What their campaign has done this morning is the same game that has made people sick and tired of politics in this country,” Obama said. “They have seized on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad, because they know it’s catnip for the news media. “Enough!” he added, his voice rising. “I love this country too much to let them take over another election with lies and phony outrage and swift boat politics. Enough is enough.”

Some experts agreed.

“While we’re concerned about lipstick on pigs – and pigs don’t vote and have no constituency – we are missing the point,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, co-author of a new book, Presidents Creating the Presidency, about presidential use of rhetoric.

But the GOP web ad sought to link Obama’s remark with his readiness to be president. “Ready to Lead? No,” it said. “Ready to Smear? Yes.” Meanwhile, Jane Swift, a former Republican Massachusetts governor, stepped out with a newly formed “Palin Truth Squad” to voice the McCain team’s outrage over the expression.

The tempest began in Michigan on Monday, when Obama warned that McCain and Palin are trying to claim the change mantle even though their party has been in power for eight years. “How do they have the nerve to say it?” Obama asked. Later, in Virginia, Obama said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” As laughter erupted, he added, “You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, but it’s still going to stink after eight years.”

Vice President Dick Cheney said the same thing about President George W. Bush’s rival, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, at the close of the 2004 campaign. On Kerry’s wavering stances on the war, Cheney said: “As we say in Wyoming, you can put all the lipstick you want on a pig, but in the end of the day, it’s still a pig.”

Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the expression is a common one. “The inference in that speech was … that John McCain was dressing up old ideas,” she said. “The use of ‘lipstick on a pig’ was a colloquial, commonplace way of saying this.”

At the same time, she said, Obama can be faulted for “priming” voters about the age of his senior rival for the White House by talking about wrapping an “old fish” in paper called change.

(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-09-10-08 2049EDT

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