TAMPA — Sarah Palin wants you to know she is not the kind of hockey mom who plunks down $150,000 on clothing.
Revving up a roaring crowd at the Tampa Convention Center Sunday, the Alaska governor tried to tamp down a flap over the GOP spending big money on clothing and accessories for her debut at the Republican National Convention in September.
The recent media attention on the unusual purchases from stores including Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus amounts to a "double standard," she said. Television personality Elisabeth Hasselbeck of The View, who introduced Palin in Tampa, called the clothing story "deliberately sexist."
"I'm actually most impressed by her accessories — like the flag pin she wears in honor of her son and our military men and women fighting abroad," Hasselbeck said. "They didn't list that accessory and its value in their reports, did they? You know why? Because they know it's priceless!"
The crowd responded with "USA! USA!" chants.
Then Palin spoke about it, too.
"I'm glad now that Elisabeth brought it up because it gives me an opportunity without the filter of the media to tell you the whole clothes thing,'' she told a crowd dotted with "Palin Power" T-shirts and "They will know we are Christian by our vote" signs.
"Those clothes, they are not my property. Just like the lighting and staging and like everything else the RNC purchases. I'm not taking them with me,'' said Palin. "I'm back to wearing my own clothes from my favorite consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska."
The 5-day-old mini-controversy over the lavish clothing purchases threatened Palin's down-to-earth image and served as an unwanted distraction for the McCain campaign trying to overcome Sen. Barack Obama's lead in battleground states with just nine days to go.
John McCain faced questions about the expense on Meet the Press Sunday, and the McCain campaign told reporters Sunday that a third of the purchases already had been returned and the rest ultimately would be donated to charity.
A number of polls suggest Palin has turned into a liability for McCain. Although she is beloved within the GOP's conservative base, her shaky performance in news interviews and strident stump speeches may be turning off critical swing voters, polls say. Reports have begun surfacing about allies of Palin and McCain anonymously criticizing each other over her performance and how the campaign has handled her.
But there was nothing but love for her inside the Tampa Convention Center on Sunday. At least 5,000 people, considerably more than McCain drew at the same location in September, showed up to cheer for the woman many said is the future of the Republican Party.
"Let me put it this way," said Mae Zorn of Thonotosassa, "until McCain picked Sarah Palin, I was not going to vote this year."
A group of Catholic school students from Lakeland, all in pink Palin Power T-shirts, sat on the floor writing Palin's name on signs, with crayons. One of the moms, 45-year-old Kim Mulson, stood nearby. "I love Palin," she said. "She's strong, she's family-based, she has good moral values. She's just a perfect woman. I don't think she sets women back. Having a gun and going fishing is a sign of strength. She can be feminine and still have those traits."
Palin, 44, was considerably more restrained in her criticism of Obama than when she came to the bay area three weeks ago and aggressively questioned Obama's patriotism.
Still, any mention of Obama's name drew hearty boos and bellows of "liar!" and "communist!" Two warmup speakers, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe and state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, invoked William Ayers, the 1960s radical with whom Obama served on a civic board in Chicago.
Palin mostly cast Obama as a big government liberal sure to raise people's taxes. And she criticized him for being presumptuous and acting as if he's already won the election.
"Elections, they're not decided until the votes are counted. Our opponent sure seems once again to be getting a little bit ahead of himself,'' Palin said referring to a New York Times report that a draft inauguration speech is already prepared for Obama.
Both candidates have transition teams in place, and Obama aides note that Obama's transition team leader, John Podesta, had written the speech when he was still working for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was published in a book last summer.
"Barack Obama and I both have spent quite a lot of time on the basketball court. But where I come from, you have to win the game before you cut down the nets,'' Palin said to cheers. "I know judging from media coverage it does seem the coronation is already set. But as for John McCain and me, we don't take anything for granted. We're not assuming we have your vote, we are respectfully asking for it."
Palin also campaigned in Kissimmee on Sunday, while Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman stumped for McCain at Lenny's Restaurant in Clearwater Sunday afternoon. Sen. Joe Biden kicks off a three-day Florida swing today in New Port Richey.
On Wednesday, Obama and former President Bill Clinton are expected to hold their first joint campaign rally in Orlando.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8241.