PITTSBURGH - Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin insisted in an interview with the Tribune on Thursday that she did not accept $150,000 worth of designer clothes from the Republican Party and "that is not who we are."
"That whole thing is just, bad!" she said. "Oh, if people only knew how frugal we are.
Thrust into the national spotlight as John McCain's running mate in late August from relative obscurity as governor of Alaska, Palin has found herself under the microscope ever since, accused of being inexperienced, a drag on the ticket and, most recently, the recipient of racks of expensive clothes.
Less than two weeks before Election Day, she will deliver her first major policy speech Friday, calling for full funding of special education, a subject that has suddenly become extremely personal. And that's not just because of the arrival of Trig, her 6-month-old son with Down syndrome. It's because families with children who have disabilities have been flocking to her campaign stops, looking to Palin and her family for inspiration.
Palin on Thursday granted one of her first newspaper interviews since becoming McCain's vice presidential nominee. She was joined by her husband, Todd, who cradled Trig, noticeably plumper since he was first introduced to the world two months ago.
Palin called the disabilities issues "a joyful challenge." Todd Palin showed off photos of people with Down syndrome who have come to campaign events, and the candidate said one advocacy group sent her a bumper sticker that said "My kid has more chromosomes than your kid."
"These children are not a problem, they are a priority," Palin said.
"We're on this journey with other families," she said. "We'll learn a lot from those other families, as they can count on us in the White House doing all that we can for them also. It's going to be a nice team effort here."
Still, much of the media attention Palin has received--on the issue of the clothes, for example--has decidedly not been about public policy issues. She points to that as evidence of a bias against women candidates.
"I think Hillary Clinton was held to a different standard in her primary race," Palin said. "Do you remember the conversations that took place about her, say superficial things that they don't talk about with men, her wardrobe and her hairstyles, all of that? That's a bit of that double standard."
Palin said she would rather talk about the Republican campaign's mission to reform government, get the economy back on track and bring opportunities to families, especially those with special needs.
"I'm not going to complain about it, I'm not going to whine about it, I'm going to plow through that, because we are embarking on something greater than that, than allowing that double standard to adversely affect us," she said.
But polls suggest that McCain is in trouble, partly because of Palin, who has been criticized as lacking the experience to become president. This week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggested more people now think that Palin is hurting McCain's chances of becoming president than President George W. Bush, whose national approval ratings are in the 20s.
Palin disputed such conclusions.
"I think that those reporters asking those questions should come to some of our rallies and ask some of those in the crowd why it is they are enthused," she said, adding that the crowds see her as representing "hardworking, everyday American families."
In her speech Friday, Palin will lay out the campaign's plans to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, boost funding for special-needs children from birth to age 3 and allow parents to choose whether federal money for their child is used in a public, private, religious or secular school without navigating a cumbersome administrative process.
The federal government originally committed in 1975 to paying 40 percent of the cost of educating children with special needs, with the states paying the rest. But that has never happened; full funding would require approximately $26 billion a year, and the federal government currently shells out $10.9 billion.
The McCain campaign plans to phase in that money with an extra $3 billion a year over five years. McCain has called for a domestic discretionary spending freeze, but programs for disabled people would be exempt.
"It's not all about the money, it's not all about budgets," Palin said, adding vaguely that the money could come from "re-prioritizing" the budget. "It's about that spirit of acceptance and embracing that diversity that is in the world with children who are special, a little bit different from the norm."
Palin's eyes well up as she talks about her sister's son, Karcher, who has autism.
"My sister and I have talked a lot about this. It makes me cry thinking about it," Palin said. "She asked with tears in her eyes, she says, 'What happens when Kurt and I, though, are elderly, then what happens to Karcher?' "
Palin calls that the story of millions of Americans. Her hope is to strengthen the National Institutes of Health "to make sure we're researching everything about autism and make sure we find out what causes it."
Sarah Palin responds to wardrope flap
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