“What makes this more gray is the fact that the party committee [the RNC] is doing it in coordination with the campaign,” said Noble. “The use by candidates and their campaign funds to buy clothing, buy cars or pay the rent has been looked upon as inappropriate, which is why we passed laws dealing with campaign committees. However, the law does not extend to the party committee and here the question is ‘Is this an expense by the party committee or is it in effect a contribution to the campaign, which the campaign then spent on [Palin]?’”
Noble said there are two issues at play: whether it is legal and what the public perception is.
The legal issue is not an immediate factor because no complaints have been filed with the FEC and the commission often takes several months to issue rulings on complaints. That means Palin’s shopping spree will be played out and judged in the court of public opinion.
“Generally, there has been a sense that candidates should not be able to use their campaign funds to buy personal items,” said Noble.
Massie Ritsch, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group tracking money in politics and its impact on elections and public policy that operates the Web site opensecrets.org, said the campaign is going to have to weigh the political costs of the affair. Ritsch said there could potentially be justifications for the expenses passing muster with the FEC, but the concern right now is “whether it will pass the smell test with voters.”
Nancy Watzman, director of the Party Time Project for the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group, said Palin’s expenses on designer clothing are unprecedented.
“For ordinary people tightening their pocket books, wondering where they are going to make the next cuts and shopping at discount stores…this cuts into the image that she is an ordinary hockey mom and raises questions about how ordinary she really is,” said Watzman.
What made it tough for the Republicans is that the Palin scandal came on a day when McCain was showing a slight uptick in a few key battleground states. Two new polls showed him opening a narrow lead against Barack Obama in Florida. Another showed Obama’s lead in Virginia shrinking from 8 percentage points to 2. (A second had Obama rising to 10.)
But even with a slight improvement, McCain is fighting an uphill battle and a decreasing number of routes to hit the magic number of 270 electoral votes.
Currently, Obama retains double-digit leads in all of the states Kerry won in 2004. In Iowa and New Mexico, which went to George W. Bush in the last two elections, Obama has leads of over 8 percent. Should those numbers hold on election day, just six electoral votes separate him from victory.
Meanwhile, Colorado is leaning Democratic after voting Republican in the past. If it were to flip, Obama would win. Same for Ohio, Missouri or North Carolina, where polls all favor the Democratic ticket, but by much smaller margins. (Should Obama lose all four of those but emerge victorious in Nevada, he will hit 269 electoral votes, and a tie would send the deciding vote to the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats and would likely vote in his favor.)
The whole fashion affair is just a storm in a teacup, of course. Politicos’ wardrobes invariably end up being a topic of conversation at some point, for better or worse: Michelle Obama’s $148 dress from White House|Black Market she wore on “The View” was raved about, while few have questioned how much her Thakoon ones have cost (about $1,000 to $1,500 at retail). Jacqueline Kennedy’s clothes budget was ridiculed (even by her husband), while Nancy Reagan was put under the spotlight for accepting free gowns from the likes of Adolfo and James Galanos while her husband was president.
One thing is for certain in the latest episode, though: It’s doubtful McCain will reprise then-Sen. Richard Nixon’s emotional TV appearance defending his wife Pat’s “respectable Republican cloth coat.”