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(photo credit: AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama lashed out at rival John McCain's campaign, accusing it of lying and trying to undermine his White House bid with the same tactics used to torpedo John Kerry's presidential bid four years ago.
Obama's words, among his sharpest in the presidential campaign, were in response to Republican accusations that he had made a sexist comment, likening McCain's vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to a pig.
The comments came as Obama looks to regain the upper hand in the presidential race after McCain received a boost from last week's Republican National Convention and his selection of Palin.
Opinion polls now show McCain tied or with a narrow lead over Obama.
Obama on Tuesday mocked McCain's claim to represent a change from the unpopular presidency of fellow Republican George W. Bush. "You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig," Obama said.
Palin was not mentioned in that part of his remarks. But the lipstick reference recalled a widely publicized line in Palin's nomination acceptance speech when she joked that lipstick was the only difference between pit bulls and suburban "hockey moms" like her.
The McCain campaign accused Obama of attacking Palin in "offensive and disgraceful comments" and demanded an apology. It issued an Internet ad maintaining that Obama was talking about Palin and said of Obama: "Ready to lead? No. Ready to smear? Yes."
Obama responded by calling this "the latest made-up controversy by the John McCain campaign."
"I don't care what they say about me. But I love this country too much to let them take over another election with lies and phony outrage and Swift-boat politics. Enough is enough," he said at a campaign event in Norfolk, Virginia.
Obama's reference was to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an outside group that in 2004 made unsubstantiated allegations about Democratic nominee Kerry's decorated military record from the Vietnam war.
Later in the appearance, responding to a supporter's question, Obama said "nobody actually believes that these folks (Republicans) are offended."
"Everybody knows it's cynical, everybody knows it's insincere," he said.
The lipstick-on-a-pig maxim is hardly new to either Obama or McCain. The Democrat has used it in the past, and McCain repeated it when he criticized Obama's former rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, on health care. McCain was never accused of being sexist when he uttered those words.
The McCain campaign's charges come as Republicans hope to win over female supporters of Clinton, some of whom say their candidate was badly treated during the long primary battle because of her sex.
Palin would be the first female US vice president.
Obama's campaign has accused the Republicans of engaging in a "pathetic attempt to play the gender card."
Democrats are determined not to repeat what they see as their error in 2004 of not responding aggressively to Republican criticism. But if Obama is too aggressive in taking on Republicans, he risks damaging his campaign theme of being a candidate of change and unity who would end Washington's divisiveness and political gridlock.
McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers responded to Obama's criticism Wednesday, saying: "Barack Obama can't campaign with schoolyard insults and then try to claim outrage at the tone of the campaign. His talk of new politics is as empty as his campaign trail promises."
Since the convention, McCain has also campaigned on a theme of change and bipartisanship, highlighting his reputation as a maverick and trying to distance himself from Bush.
On Wednesday, McCain and Palin, campaigning in Fairfax, Virginia, pledged to cut spending by eliminating wasteful government projects known as earmarks.
Palin herself has made nearly $200 million in such requests for her state. Still, she said she has "championed earmark reform" as governor and "reformed the abuses of earmarks in our state."
Now, she said, she is ready to join McCain in Washington "so we can end the corrupt practice of abusive earmarks after all."
Obama's vice presidential pick, Joe Biden, argued during a fundraising stop in Boston that McCain was using the kind of tactics blamed for derailing his own 2000 presidential race. George W. Bush and his supporters questioned McCain's commitment to his fellow Vietnam veterans and even suggested the Arizona senator was the father of an illegitimate child.
"What really disappoints me is the very tactics used against him, they're trying to use against Barack Obama now," Biden said.
A spokesman said Biden was referring to a new McCain ad suggesting Obama supported sex education for kindergartners, as well as a recent ad from a McCain fundraiser that linked Obama to 1960s radical William Ayers.
Obama and McCain will take a time out from the political attacks Thursday as they appear together at the site of the World Trade Center to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The campaigns already had agreed to halt television advertising critical of each other that day.