WASHINGTON - The Republican National Committee spent about $150,000 on clothing, hair styling, makeup, and other "campaign accessories" in September for the McCain campaign after Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin joined the ticket as his running mate.
The RNC now says the clothes belong to the party committee, while the McCain campaign says the clothing will go to a "charitable purpose" after the campaign.
The expenses include $75,062 spent at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis and $41,850 in St. Louis in early September. The committee also reported spending $4,100 for makeup and hair consulting. The expenses were first reported by Politico.com.
The RNC also spent $4,902 at Atelier, a stylish men's clothing store in New York. Other purchases included a $92 romper and matching hat with ears for Palin's baby, Trig, at Pacifier, a baby store in Minneapolis.
Wing Witthuhn, who owns the store with her husband, said a young staffer with an RNC credit card purchased the clothes during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Trig wore the romper the night Palin addressed the convention.
McCain spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt, who has been traveling with Palin, said: "With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it's remarkable that we're spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses. It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign."
Palin has often talked of "real Americans" and "Joe Six-Pack" and projected a folksy demeanor in her vice presidential debate.
"Let's do what our parents told us before we probably even got that first credit card," she said at the debate. "Don't live outside of our means."
The average U.S. household spent $1,874 on clothes and services in 2006, the last year for which figures are available from the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Most of the clothing expenses reported for the McCain campaign were initially incurred by Jeff Larson, a Republican consultant who was chief executive of the host committee for the convention in September. Federal Election Commission records show that the RNC reimbursed Larson for the expenses - a total of $132,457.
Larson is a partner in FLS Connect, a firm that the McCain campaign and the RNC retained to undertake a phone-calling campaign on behalf of McCain. Media reports have linked the firm to negative calls aimed at Democrat Barack Obama. Larson's previous company worked for George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, conducting phone calls in South Carolina opposing McCain.
Larson's office referred calls to the RNC. A committee spokesman said only that the RNC acted properly in reimbursing Larson for the costs.
In 2007, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards sparked Internet derision and jokes from late-night TV comics after his campaign for the party's nomination paid for two $400 haircuts by a stylist from Beverly Hills, Calif. His campaign said that it had paid the bill by mistake and that Edwards would reimburse it.
The RNC has been helping McCain's campaign financially now that McCain is locked into spending $84 million for the fall campaign under his agreement to accept public financing. Obama chose not to participate in the public system and raised $150 million in September.
The RNC is allowed to spend up to $19 million in "coordinated expenses" with the campaign. In September, it spent $4.4 million. The clothing and styling were part of that, but most was spent on postage for campaign mailings.
Why did the RNC and not McCain's committee pay for the accessories?
The 2002 campaign-finance law that bears McCain's name barred any funds that "are donated for the purpose of supporting the activities of a federal or state office holder" from being used for personal expenses including clothing. A quirk in the law does not specifically mention party committees.
That does not mean the expenditure would not be subject to a challenge before the Federal Election Commission.
Lawrence M. Noble, former general counsel at the FEC, said that as a coordinated party expense, the clothing purchase could be considered a contribution to the campaign.
"And if it was a contribution, then it could not have been used for buying clothing," Noble said. And "if it is covered [as a personal-use expense], the argument that we were going to give it to a charity doesn't help."
Fifteen years ago, McCain himself complained that restrictions on political contributions for personal use at that time were too broad, and he wrote an amendment to tighten the law.
McCain said on the Senate floor in May 1993, "The use of campaign funds for items which most Americans would consider to be strictly personal reasons, in my view, erodes public confidence and erodes it significantly."