LEBANON, VA. — A day of tussling in the presidential campaign ended Tuesday with a fight over, of all things, lipstick-wearing pigs.
John McCain's campaign accused Barack Obama of calling Sarah Palin a pig and demanded that he apologize. Obama aides insisted that he had made no such remark about the Republican vice presidential nominee.
The dust-up started when Obama ridiculed McCain's pledge to bring change to a White House that Republicans have controlled for nearly eight years.
"John McCain says he's about change too," Obama told a crowd here. "So I guess his whole angle is: Watch out, George Bush -- except for economic policy, healthcare policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics, we're really going to shake things up in Washington.
"That's not change. That's just calling the same thing something different. But you can put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, and it's still going to stink after eight years."
With that, McCain's new "Palin Truth Squad" jumped into action. Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift said Obama was alluding to Palin's joke that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick. In a call with reporters, Swift demanded an apology from the Democratic presidential nominee.
"Ultimately, I think the American people will realize that calling a very prominent female governor of one of our states a pig is not exactly what we want to see when we supposedly are going to have this great debate that is the politics of hope," Swift said.
But Mike Huckabee, a McCain opponent in the primaries, said he did not believe Obama was calling Palin a pig. "It's an old expression, and I'm going to have to cut Obama some slack on that one," Huckabee told Fox News.
McCain's campaign has denounced critics of Palin as sexist. His advisors hope that Palin will draw support from women who voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries and caucuses.
Anita Dunn, a senior Obama campaign advisor, called the attack on the Democrat's pig remark "a pathetic attempt to play the gender card about the use of a common analogy."
"This phony lecture on gender sensitivity is the height of cynicism and lays bare the increasingly dishonorable campaign John McCain has chosen to run," she said.
McCain too has invoked pigs in criticizing opponents. When Clinton released her healthcare plan last year, the Arizona senator portrayed it as a remake of the one she proposed when her husband, Bill Clinton, was president. "I think they put some lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," McCain said.
Responding last year to GOP rival Mitt Romney's attacks on his immigration agenda, McCain said: "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it."
The volleys over pigs and lipstick captured the increasing rancor of the race. McCain released a TV ad that said his opponent's lone accomplishment on education was legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergartners. "Learning about sex before learning to read?" an announcer asks. "Barack Obama: Wrong on education. Wrong for your family."
As an Illinois state senator, Obama voted for a bill that revised the state's standards on sex education, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Obama says sex education should be "age appropriate," as determined by teachers and parents.
"It is shameful and downright perverse for the McCain campaign to use a bill that was written to protect young children from sexual predators as a recycled and discredited political attack against a father of two young girls," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said.
"Last week, John McCain told Time magazine he couldn't define what honor was," Burton said. "Now we know why."
Reston reported from Lebanon, Ohio; Nicholas from Lebanon, Va. Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.