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In this case, clothes may make the candidate

The Baltimore Sun

So now we have the answer to the eternal question that arises as you peruse the doll section at Toys 'R' Us: Just how much more does Vice Presidential Barbie cost than Caribou Barbie?

As Politico reported this week, about $150,000.

That, the Web site learned from financial disclosure statements, is how much the Republican National Committee has spent dressing and styling Sarah Palin since she was picked as John McCain's running mate in August. Included in the expenditures were a $75,000 haul at Neiman Marcus, a $4,700 tab for hair and makeup sessions, and various and sundry items from Barney's to Macy's to Pacifier, apparently an upscale baby store.

In the same way that it takes a lot of expensive cosmetics to create a "natural" look, apparently it costs a lot of money to look anti-elitist.

Let me retract my claws for a minute - because, of course, any woman who critiques another obviously takes her milk from a saucer - and say this: Palin looks maaahvelous. After years of watching female politicians frumping around in boxy pantsuits and nun shoes, it's refreshing to see someone who dresses like a lot of professional women: the bright top over a basic black skirt, the cropped, fitted jackets, the sly, sexy shoes. Some of the details need a bit of work - the French manicured toenails and facial bronzer are a little, um, strip mall - but most of the time, Palin looks both polished and appropriate.

Whether she looks $150,000 worth of maaahvelous is another matter.

And whether that's just the cost of doing business when the politician is a woman is yet another matter.

The men have it easy. Barack Obama, for example, has said he buys five of the same suits (Burberry - nice!) and just keeps wearing them. Who or what he, McCain and Joe Biden are wearing at any point on the trail is hardly worth noting since it's usually either a dark suit or a dark suit. Although sometimes one of them will go slightly crazy and turn up in a dark suit.

Women, though, lack the comfort of the agreed-upon uniform. Hillary Clinton tried for one, running for Senate in a series of indistinguishable black pantsuits, but that somehow morphed into a veritable rainbow of pantsuits when she ran for president. I've always felt the poor woman is just endlessly searching for whatever clothing - or hairstyle - people wouldn't talk about. And so she went from a who-cares look (headband, glasses) to OK-I'll-play-along (Oscar de la Renta, cover of Vogue) to, finally, I-give-up (pantsuit, Washington hair).

And now, we've been treated to Palin's equally scrutinized fashion choices.

Somehow, in just a few short months, she turned from someone who shopped at a secondhand store in Anchorage and cited Patagonia as a favorite label into someone entirely comfortable donning a Valentino jacket - paid for by someone else.

So much for the horrors of redistributing wealth.

What does it mean to run against elites while dressing like one of them? To promote your Joe Six-Packiness while wearing champagne threads? To say you want to bring Wasilla Main Street to Washington even as the campaign is bringing Fifth Avenue into your closet?

What makes it an issue, in the end, is the authenticity factor. Not that Palin needs to run around in fleece and parkas to be who she is. Of course, she needed some new clothes befitting the national stage and the intense spotlight that she was entering as that all-too-rare woman on a major presidential ticket. And surely she's been too busy herself, and it's been her handlers who ran through the store racks and came up with her pricey campaign attire - apparently on the fly, since many of the duds came from stores in Minneapolis at the time of the Republican convention.

And yet coming as it does on the heels of other disclosures about Palin - the Associated Press reported this week that she had billed the state of Alaska for her children to travel to "official" events, such as their father's snowmobile race and a five-hour conference that somehow required a four-night hotel stay - it just seems so cynical. This fresh face on the national scene doesn't seem all that fresh after all.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised, at a time when elections play out as just another form of entertainment, that this latest revelation seems like just another reality show. Not so much Extreme Makeover, as What Not To Wear.

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