The US presidential campaign erupted on Wednesday in a spat over gender politics, with John McCain accusing the Democrat of a sexist attack on his running mate and Barack Obama denouncing Republican "lies and phony outrage."
With the race tightening in a struggle for women voters, McCain put out a Web advertisement saying his Democratic rival was talking about Sarah Palin on Tuesday when he likened Republican plans for government reform to putting "lipstick on a pig."
Palin, a little-known Alaska governor before she became McCain's running mate, had told the Republican nominating convention this month that she was a "hockey mom" and joked that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick.
McCain's new advertisement juxtaposes the lipstick remarks by Obama and Palin, then cuts to a TV news presenter observing that one lesson of the campaign was the "continued and accepted role of sexism in American life."
"Ready to lead? No," McCain's ad says in print across the TV screen. "Ready to smear? Yes."
Obama tackled the controversy head-on during an appearance in Norfolk.
"What their campaign has done this morning is the same game that has made people sick and tired of politics in this country," he said. "They seize on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad because they know that it's catnip for the news media."
"I don't care what they say about me but I love this country too much to let them to take over another election with lies and phony outrage and Swift-boat politics. Enough is enough," Obama added to cheers from supporters. He was referring to attack ads that help sink the 2004 presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry, a former Swift-boat captain.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Linda Douglass said it was clear from the context of his remarks on Tuesday that the Democratic presidential candidate was not referring to Palin in his comments and was not calling her a pig.
McCain is "running a relentlessly dishonest, disruptive and cynical campaign in hopes of distracting voters" from the issues, she said.
Opinion polls since the Republican and Democratic conventions show McCain closing the gap with Obama ahead of the Nov. 4 election.
A Washington Post/ABC News survey found most of McCain's surge was due to a big shift in support among white women voters. Obama rejects the idea that he is losing ground among women voters.
Obama, a senator from Illinois, made the "lipstick on a pig" remark during a speech in Lebanon, Virginia, on Tuesday while ridiculing McCain's assertion since the Republican nominating convention that he and Palin would be "agents of change" in Washington.
"You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig," Obama said as the crowd cheered. "You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It's still going to stink."
McCain's self-styled "Palin Truth Squad" seized on the remark, with former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, the leader of the effort, insisting "Senator Obama owes Governor Palin an apology."
The Obama campaign accused McCain of "a pathetic attempt to play the gender card". It noted that McCain used the "lipstick on a pig" line himself in referring to a health care plan proposed by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who was defeated by Obama in the primaries.
"This phony lecture on gender sensitivity is the height of cynicism and lays bare the increasingly dishonorable campaign John McCain has chosen to run," said Obama campaign senior advisor Anita Dunn.
The line has been used by a number of Republican and Democratic politicians. Torie Clarke, a longtime McCain adviser and former Pentagon press secretary, wrote a book entitled, "Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game."