I will not venture into the danger zone between dueling lipstick tubes.

The great lipstick-on-a-pig campaign imbroglio, if we are lucky, will mark the moment Republicans jumped the shark with their cries of alleged sexism toward vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. I will note once — and only once — that such howls of indignation were not heard from them when Hillary Clinton (a new Republican heroine, to hear Palin tell it) was vilified and humiliated with sexist taunts. The hazing of Clinton predates her run for the presidency, going back to her 1992 debut on the national scene not as a candidate, but as a candidate’s wife.

Try as I might to dismiss the pseudo-outrage that John McCain’s campaign has whipped up about Palin’s plight as a woman running for high office, I can’t. Not completely, anyway.

This has a lot to do with a graphic image of Palin I just saw in which she is dressed in a black bustier, adorned with long, black gloves and wielding a whip. The image appeared in the Internet magazine Salon to illustrate a column titled: “The dominatrix,” by Gary Kamiya. Kamiya calls Palin a “pinup queen,” and says she not only tantalized the Republican National Convention with political red meat, but that her “babalicious” presence hypercharged the place with sexual energy, and naughty energy at that. “You could practically feel the crowd getting a collective woody as Palin bent Obama and the Democrats over, shoved a leather gag in their mouths and flogged them as un-American wimps, appeasers and losers.”

That’s some sexual mother lode. Dare I point out that I have never — ever — in three decades of covering politics seen a male politician’s style, even one with an earthy demeanor, described this way?

Salon editor Joan Walsh says she agrees the “dominatrix” piece had a “provocative cover,” and that her columnists enjoy great freedom. “One day Gary (Kamiya) called Palin a dominatrix, the next day Camille Paglia called her a feminist.” The magazine exists, Walsh says, to “push the envelope.”

No sooner did Walsh give me this explanation than another Salon contributor, Cintra Wilson, pushed that envelope again. Wilson described Palin as follows: an “f—able … Christian Stepford wife in a ‘sexy librarian’ costume” who is, for ideological Republicans, a “hardcore pornographic centerfold spread.” That is, when Palin is not coming across as one of those “cutthroat Texas cheerleader stage moms.”

What is it about a woman candidate that sends the media into weird Freudian frenzies?

Palin’s name was freshly announced when a Photoshopped image of her, supposedly wearing a flag-themed bikini and toting a shotgun, popped up on the Internet. Photographers for more than one mainstream news organization took evocative shots of her legs, perched upon stiletto heels, while she was on the stage for campaign events. Some liberal bloggers — yes, some of the same folks who routinely referred to Clinton with the rhymes-with-rich word — came up with this moniker for Palin: Stepford Barbie.

Then there are commentators — and even an Obama campaign official — who draw parallels between Palin and Michelle Obama. The correct analogy would be to compare Palin with Democratic vice presidential contender Joe Biden. Really, have you heard anyone compare and contrast Biden with Cindy McCain? I sure haven’t.

So why the Sarah-versus-Michelle contest?

Palin is running for vice president. Michelle Obama is not running for anything but is helping her husband’s bid for the presidency. Palin seeks to be trusted with the nuclear code; Obama seeks a first lady’s role that lacks any constitutionally prescribed responsibilities. The media pairing of these two is based on nothing but their common femaleness. The Obama campaign says it will use Michelle Obama’s own profile as a working mother to blunt Palin’s possible effectiveness in attracting the working-mom vote. “We are not ceding women with children,” Obama campaign aide Anita Dunn told The New York Times. “We have a candidate whose wife is a working mom with two young children.”

So it’s our-mother-beats-your-mother, a creepy condescension to all working mothers and especially to Palin, who isn’t a candidate’s spouse. She is the candidate.

At least Palin’s treatment resolves a lingering dispute from the Democratic nominating contest. The rank sexism that surrounded Clinton’s bid often was dismissed (especially on the left) as no such thing. The animosity was said to be not about any woman candidate; it was about that woman, candidate Clinton.

Now it’s about Palin. At least no one can rationalize her treatment as mere Clinton-hating.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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