Sarah Palin’s wardrobe joined the ranks of symbolic political excess on Wednesday, alongside John McCain’s multiple houses and John Edwards’s $400 haircut, as Republicans expressed fear that weeks of tailoring Ms. Palin as an average “hockey mom” would fray amid revelations that the Republican Party outfitted her with expensive clothing from high-end stores.
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Cable television, talk radio and even shows like “Access Hollywood” seemed gripped with sartorial fever after campaign finance reports confirmed that the Republican National Committee spent $75,062 at Neiman Marcus and $49,425 at Saks Fifth Avenue in September for Ms. Palin and her family.
Advisers to Ms. Palin said on Wednesday that the purchases — which totaled about $150,000 and were classified as “campaign accessories” — were made on the fly after Ms. Palin, 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 Ms. Palin did not spend 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 on her behalf, which were first reported by Politico, would compromise Ms. Palin’s standing as Senator 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 “The View” on ABC, as Joy Behar, a co-host, noted the McCain campaign’s outreach to blue-collar workers — like an Ohio plumber who recently chided Senator Barack Obama over taxes — after another co-host, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, defended the expenditures.
“I don’t think Joe the Plumber wears Manolo Blahniks,” Ms. Behar said.
Advisers to Mr. Obama — as well as those of his rival in the Democratic primaries, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton — said that campaign money was never spent on personal clothing, but that potentially embarrassing purchases could be blended into advertising budgets.
Mr. Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, however, listed his infamous $400 haircut as a campaign expense, and after it was detected, he struggled to shake an elitist image in his failed Democratic presidential bid.
Such an image is unhelpful at this late stage of the general election, Republicans said, especially when many families are experiencing economic pain, and when the image applies to a candidate — Ms. Palin — who has run for office in part on her appeal as an outdoors enthusiast and former small-town mayor who scorns pretensions.
“It looks like nobody with a political antenna was working on this — just one more sign of the hapless decisions in this campaign,” said Ed Rollins, a Republican political consultant who ran President 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.”
Mr. 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 at an off-the-rack store.
Few Republican operatives or politicians, even those critical of the McCain-Palin campaign, were publicly criticizing the ticket on Wednesday over the clothing purchases. Some said privately that doing so would be akin to kicking a campaign while it was down.
Others said the issue was tainted with sexism, given that male politicians often spend thousands of dollars on suits.
“She had a legitimate need to purchase clothing to get her through three months of grueling campaigning in the constant spotlight of television cameras,” said William F. B. O’Reilly, a Republican consultant in New York. “No one would blink if this was a male candidate buying Brooks Brothers suits.”
Other Republicans said the focus on Ms. Palin’s clothing did not fairly reflect the challenge she faced: Neither she nor her Republican allies expected that she would be tapped as Mr. McCain’s running mate until the last minute, when she was elevated from her comfort zone in Alaska and presented to the nation as the first female Republican vice-presidential nominee.
“If they hadn’t done this, ‘Saturday Night Live’ would be doing jokes where Governor Palin would be dressed in elk skin,” said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant not associated with the McCain campaign.
Party officials, who said they had discussed the matter with McCain and Palin advisers, said that all concerned wanted Ms. Palin to present herself as a fashionable-but-sensible on-the-go working mother — a multilayered sartorial strategy, in other words, that has yielded an array of well-cut jackets and skirts, suitable for the different seasons and state climates.
Nicolle Wallace, a top adviser to Mr. McCain, described the clothes as a wardrobe necessary for an extraordinary circumstance and said the clothing would be given to charity at the conclusion of the campaign.
More than $130,000 of the charges used to outfit Ms. Palin and her family were initially footed by Jeff Larson, a prominent Republican consultant in Minneapolis whose firm has been tied to the onslaught of negative robocalls from Mr. McCain’s campaign on Mr. Obama. Mr. Larson was also the chief executive of the local host committee for the Republican National Convention, in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Federal Election Commission records showed Mr. Larson was reimbursed by the Republican National Committee for charges at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Barneys New York and Atelier New York, a men’s clothing store.
If Ms. Palin chose to keep the clothes after the campaign is over, the $150,000 would have to be taxed as income. I.R.S. rules allow for employees to deduct the cost of uniforms worn for work, so long as the clothes have no use other than one’s job.
If the clothes are given by the Republican National Committee to the Palins, the value of the clothes would be taxable income, but the Palins could offset this by donating them to charity and taking a deduction.
Had the money come from the McCain campaign, it would be a conversion of campaign money into personal use, which is prohibited. The same rule does not apply to money from party committees.
“The R.N.C. cleverly used the party committee’s money to avoid the liability that would have occurred if campaigns funds were used,” said Kenneth Gross, a lawyer who is an expert in campaign finance.
Under disclosure requirements of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Ms. Palin would need to report any gifts valued at over $250 that come from a single giver.
Elisabeth Bumiller and Leslie Wayne contributed reporting.