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NORFOLK, Virginia (Reuters) - A spat over gender politics erupted on the U.S. presidential campaign on Wednesday with John McCain accusing the Democrat of a sexist attack on his running mate and Barack Obama denouncing Republicans for "lies and phony outrage."
With the race tightening in a struggle for women voters, McCain put out a Web advertisement saying the Democrat Obama was talking about Sarah Palin on Tuesday when he likened Republican plans for government reform to putting "lipstick on a pig."
Palin, a little-known Alaska governor before she became McCain's running mate, had told the Republican nominating convention this month that she was a "hockey mom" and joked that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick.
McCain's advertisement juxtaposes the lipstick remarks by Obama and Palin, then cuts to footage of CBS News anchor Katie Couric observing that one lesson of the campaign was the "continued and accepted role of sexism in American life."
"Ready to lead? No," McCain's ad says in letters across the TV screen. "Ready to smear? Yes."
Obama tackled the controversy head-on during an appearance in Norfolk.
"What their campaign has done this morning is the same game that has made people sick and tired of politics in this country," he said. "They seize on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad because they know that it's catnip for the news media."
"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," Obama added. He was referring to attack ads that helped sink the 2004 presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry, a former Swift-boat captain in the Vietnam war.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Linda Douglass said it was clear from the context of his remarks on Tuesday that the Democratic presidential candidate was not referring to Palin in his comments and was not calling her a pig.
CBS News said the video-sharing website YouTube.com had agreed at CBS's request to pull the ad on grounds that the Couric clip -- taken without permission from a 3-month-old online commentary about Democrat Hillary Clinton's primary campaign -- was a copyright infringement.
A McCain spokesman disputed the copyright violation claim and said the ad would remain on the campaign's website.
McCain is "running a relentlessly dishonest, disruptive and cynical campaign in hopes of distracting voters" from the issues, she said.
Opinion polls since the Republican and Democratic conventions show McCain closing the gap and drawing even with Obama ahead of the November 4 election.
A Washington Post/ABC News survey found most of McCain's surge was due to a big shift in support among white women voters.
McCain's campaign has drawn bigger crowds since Palin joined his ticket 12 days ago. Some 23,000 attended a McCain-Palin rally in Fairfax, Virginia, on Wednesday.
Undeterred by accusations of sexism, Obama's campaign launched an "Alaska Mythbusters" effort to discredit some of the statements the McCain-Palin ticket is making about her reformist credentials.
Alaska Democrats, including former Gov. Tony Knowles and Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein, raised doubts about her having opposed a controversial bridge project and questions about her firing of a state police official.
Obama, a senator from Illinois, made his "lipstick on a pig" remark during a speech in Lebanon, Virginia, on Tuesday while ridiculing McCain's assertion since the Republican nominating convention that McCain and Palin would be "agents of change" in Washington.
"You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig," Obama said as the crowd cheered. "You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It's still going to stink."
McCain himself had used the "lipstick on a pig" line in referring to Clinton's health care plan.
The line has been used by politicians from both parties. Torie Clarke, a longtime McCain adviser and former Pentagon press secretary, wrote a book entitled, "Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game."
Writing by David Alexander; Additional reporting by Jason Szep and Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller and David Storey