Sarah Palin called it right.

With 28 days left until the presidential election, "the heels are on, the gloves are off."

While the other maverick-in-command (or not) was mixing it up in a town hall debate last night, Palin no doubt was touching up her lipstick, reloading for the smear ahead.

Continuing their own announced strategy of distraction, you know, to take our minds off the financial meltdown.

Problem is, as much as we'd like to avoid the kitchen-table issues - like the bills piled up on ours - we can't.

Every day, I look at my 10th grader and wonder whether I can ever get the loan we'll need to send her to college. Even if I get it, I almost certainly will have to work longer to make up for the pension that's draining away each day. And let's not even talk about my biggest single investment: my home. What equity?

All issues that women commiserate about and stress about until it literally makes us sick - not that we can afford to get sick.

You would think the woman on the ticket - the woman who supposedly understands working families, moms, the woman who governs a state and raises five kids, would be the one insisting on staying on message.

You would think.

Instead, the newly unmuzzled, self-proclaimed pit bull went on a rampage through Florida and left some of her adoring supporters rabid with hate.

Barack Obama is different, downright dangerous, pals around with terrorists, she declared with a wink and a smile as she worked the crowd into a frenzy. Even wearing angelic white at one event - Our Lady of Perpetual Fear-Mongering.

"He doesn't see America like you and I see America."

At one stop, she was even introduced by a uniformed police officer who referred to Obama by his full name - Barack Hussein Obama - emphasizing his middle name to suggest that he's less than American.

So the great new symbol of progress for women has come to this - being used by men to do their dirty work. And enjoying it.

Which is a shame, really. Because say what you want about Palin, she's been able to connect with all ages of women in a way that her ho-hum running mate has never been able to do.

"She's a breath of fresh air," says Nancy Mullen, 43, a sales rep from Glenmoore. "You absolutely feel like there's a sincerity there. . . . I'm enthralled that she's in the process."

Likewise for Elizabeth D'Angelo, a 20-year-old Republican volunteer from Plymouth Meeting.

"She's a mom and she understands a normal American family. . . . It's awesome that she's the vice presidential nominee. So often it's been the men who run the Republican Party."

Still, Palin's positives seem to be sinking as low as her rhetoric.

What is it that we try to instill in our daughters?

Competence. Tolerance. Fairness. A willingness to listen.

Qualities that, apparently, Palin used to have. Or maybe still does, but we're not likely to see them until after Nov. 4.

"She used to be very appealing to moderate Republican women," says Karla Cunningham, who teaches a women-and-politics course at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. "When she was a practicing governor, she was very bipartisan. She was very practical and not ideological.

"Unfortunately, presidential politics changes people."

Palin's role on the ticket was to attract women, to affirm the best of us. And to be a fresh face in front of the camera.

"She's very feminine and portraying herself that way," Cunningham says. "You can see yourself liking her but not leading."

Which is exactly opposite of how most of us see the other woman who shared the presidential spotlight: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Even in defeat, you thought Hillary was taking us up a rung - or 10.

"With Hillary," says Cunningham, "you don't necessarily see yourself liking her, but you could see her leading."

McCain and company may think the cute factor helps Palin get away with her attack-dog role, but Cunningham warns the tactic may backfire.

Amounting to a zero-sum game for women.

If Clinton put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, Palin is singlehandedly replacing the panes.