10/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain May Have Opened Door For Charges That He Is A Sexist

John McCain's presidential campaign put out a web ad on Wednesday morning that longtime political observers are describing as one of most sordid they have ever seen.

The spot, titled "Lipstick," accuses Obama of sexism for saying that McCain's attempt to portray himself as a change-agent was the political equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. The McCain campaign, feigning hurt feminist sensibilities, protested that Obama was attacking Gov. Sarah Palin, who has referred to herself as a pitbull with lipstick.

Right. The line was blasted on the top of the Drudge Report and the airwaves of cable news, but other members of the press weren't buying it. Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic quickly pointed out that the charge was in insult to Obama's intelligence (why would he ever deliberately make such an attack?).

And while Democrats were at once concerned and fuming over the contrived controversy, others saw political opportunity in its wake.

"I don't know if the McCain campaign wants to go there," said an operative.

Indeed, he added, if sexism is a debate McCain wants to have, than Obama may be well suited for it. That's because the Arizona Republican's resume contains several inflammatory remarks about women. Just this election cycle, for example, McCain did not protest as a questioner at a town hall meeting referred to Hillary Clinton as a bitch. McCain went on to say he respected Clinton, but he laughed when the question itself -- "how do we beat the bitch?" -- was asked.

In 1998, McCain famously made his tasteless joke about Chelsea Clinton's looks, claiming the then first daughter was "so ugly" because "her father is Janet Reno." He later apologized.

Then there are the unconfirmed reports. From Cliff Schechter's book, The Real McCain, there is the report that McCain publicly insulted his wife, Cindy, during the 1992 Senate campaign, including referring to her as a "trollop" and "cunt." In the 1986 campaign, the Tuscon Citizen reported on allegations that McCain had told a Republican audience a disturbing joke about a woman enjoying being raped by a gorilla. Both of these accounts have been denied by McCain and his campaign.

What Democrats will do with these mostly little-known stories remains to be seen. Certainly, a campaign ad highlighting these instances would be met with harsh resistance from the McCain campaign and be proclaimed an example of Democratic desperation or deteriorating morals. Indeed, how willing Obama is to roll up his sleeves on this front could end up signifying one of the major differences between him and McCain.

As it stands now, the Illinois Democrat seems more content to take the high ground to the McCain attack and, in the process, point out the more substantive issues on which they say the Republican ticket would be bad for women, such as abortion rights, equal pay, and health care policy.