She portrays herself in campaign appearances as an average working woman with small-town values, a hockey mom who shops at Wal-Mart, the wife of a union member who works with his hands.
So the news that the Republican National Committee has bought Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her family nearly $150,000 worth of clothing since September has fueled charges of hypocrisy by her detractors and sparked questions about the legality of the expenditures.
At a time when GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain is struggling to convince voters that he understands their economic pain -- introducing them to "Joe the Plumber" last week to prove it -- his running mate's shopping spree at the most rarefied retail temples may undercut his message.
"What is shocking is that in the middle of a credit crunch, when all the candidates are trying to demonstrate they understand Joe Six-Pack and Main Street, that Sarah Palin would go shopping at the high end of 7th Avenue," said Susan Scafidi, a professor at Fordham University School of Law who specializes in fashion law. "I am surprised that the RNC was careless enough to let its bill show up in the press."
The RNC listed the expenditures in its September and October Federal Election Commission filings. The website Politico first reported the story.
The purchases occurred primarily on Sept. 10 in New York and Minneapolis at Neiman Marcus ($75,062.63), Saks Fifth Avenue ($49,425.74) and Bloomingdale's ($5,102.71). Some money was apparently spent on clothes for her husband, Todd ($4,902.08), and her children, including a $92 romper from an upscale Minneapolis baby store that her infant son wore at the Republican national convention.
The shopping spree cost about 75 times more than the average American spends per year on clothing; in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, that figure was $1,874. It also totaled more than the $125,000 Palin makes annually as governor.
In the February issue of Vogue, Palin joked that her preferred designers were "Patagonia and North Face." But by the time she arrived onstage in St. Paul, Minn., last month to accept the nomination, her wardrobe transition was well underway: She wore a narrow black skirt and a Valentino silk jacket worth $2,500.
Though she has not disclosed the labels she is wearing, fashion observers think she has worn Gianfranco Ferre, St. John and Anne Klein. On the trail, she is accompanied by a hairstylist and makeup artist.
In Los Angeles on Wednesday, shoppers were split along partisan lines.
"It's hypocritical for her to say she's a hockey mom on one side and then spend $70,000 at Neiman's," said Floyd Allyn, 45, who was shopping at Target in West Hollywood. "It's just like McCain not knowing how many houses he owns."
But McCain supporter Christy Huber of Omaha was accepting. Shopping with friends in Beverly Hills, Huber, 60, paused in front of Saks Fifth Avenue. "If she had worn crappy clothes," Huber said, "then everyone would have made fun of her for it."
Election law experts are split (also along party lines) on whether the RNC's expenditure is allowable under federal regulations prohibiting personal use of campaign funds.
"It's clearly contrary to what Congress said in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which was authored by John McCain -- that candidates can't directly pay for clothing with campaign funds," said Lance Olson, general counsel for the California Democratic Party. "If a candidate can't pay for clothing, why should the RNC be able to do that? It doesn't make sense."
James V. Lacy, a Reagan administration lawyer who is an expert on nonprofit and election law, disagreed.
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with the expenditure, as long as it is 100% focused on the campaign," Lacy said. "If they need to spend that money in order to keep her clean, clothed and focused because she is on the road 24/7, then that's an appropriate expenditure."
Lacy questioned whether the Democratic National Committee had purchased clothing for Sen. Barack Obama or his wife, Michelle. A spokesman for the Obama campaign said the DNC had not bought the Obamas any clothing or hair or makeup services.
"With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it's remarkable that we're spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses," said Tracey Schmitt, Palin's traveling press secretary. "It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign."
According to the FEC filing, Jeff Larson, a Republican National Convention official, made most of the purchases and was reimbursed. Larson is a partner in a firm that has been linked to automated calls targeting Democratic presidential candidate Obama. During the 2000 GOP primary, according to reports, Larson worked for a firm that made robocalls targeting McCain.
Hair and makeup kerfuffles are nothing new in presidential politics.