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Sarah Palin's wardrobe joined the ranks of symbolic political excess on Wednesday, alongside John McCain's multiple houses and John Edwards' $400 haircut, as Republican expressed fear that weeks of tailoring Palin as an average "hockey mom" would fray amid revelations that the Republican Party outfitted her with expensive clothing from high-end stores.
Cable television, talk radio and even shows like "Access Hollywood" seemed gripped with sartorial fever after campaign finance reports confirmed the Republican National Committee spent $75,062 at the Neiman Marcus store on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, $49,425 at Saks Fifth Avenue, and $92 for a romper and matching hat with ears for baby Trig at Pacifier, a Minneapolis baby store, in September for Palin and her family.
Advisers to Palin said Wednesday that the purchases -- which totaled about $150,000 and were classified as "campaign accessories" -- were made on the fly after the governor of Alaska was chosen as the Republican vice presidential candidate on Aug. 29 and needed new clothes to match climates across the 50 states. They emphasized, too, that Palin had not spent time on the shopping, and that other people made the decision to buy such an array of clothes.
Yet Republicans expressed consternation publicly and privately that the shopping sprees would compromise Palin's standing as McCain's chief emissary to working-class voters whose salvos at the so-called cultural elite often delight audiences at Republican rallies.
That possibility was brought to colorful life, for instance, on ABC's "The View," as co-host Joy Behar noted the McCain campaign's outreach to blue-collar workers -- such as an Ohio plumber who recently chided Sen. Barack Obama over taxes --after another co-host, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, defended the expenditures. "I don't think Joe the Plumber wears Manolo Blahniks," Behar said.
Jeff Larson, a Minnesota Republican consultant, largely fronted the $150,000 the GOP spent last month on clothing and accessories for Palin. Records from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) show that Larson, a well-connected telemarketer who also is Sen. Norm Coleman's landlord in Washington was reimbursed to the tune of $132,114.91 by the Republican National Committee shortly after the party's national convention in St. Paul ended. Larson headed the local host committee that raised money for the convention.
Advisers to Obama -- as well as those of his rival in the Democratic primaries, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- said that campaign money was never spent on personal clothing, but that potentially embarrassing purchases could be blended into advertising budgets, such as makeup needs or expensive haircuts. Edwards, however, listed his infamous $400 one as a campaign expense, and he struggled to shake that image during his Democratic presidential bid.
That sort of upscale image is unhelpful at this late stage of the general election campaign, Republicans said, especially when many families are experiencing economic pain, and when the image applies to a political candidate who has run for office in part on her appeal as an outdoors enthusiast and former small-town mayor who scorns elitist pretensions.
"It looks like nobody with a political antennae was working on this," said Ed Rollins, a Republican political consultant who ran Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984. "It just undercuts Palin's whole image as a hockey mom, a 'one-of-us' kind of candidate." Nicolle Wallace, a top adviser to McCain, said Palin's clothes would be given to charity after the campaign.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, have been tagged as elitist by both Republicans and Democrats at times, and so much was made when she appeared on "The View" in June in a black-and-white patterned dress. Turns out it sold for $148. Obama does wear Hart Schaffner Marx suits that retail for about $1,500. McCain consistently wears $520 Salvatore Ferragamo loafers.
Staff writer Bob von Sternberg and the Associated Press contributed to this report.