Barack Obama has long needed to take his first real swipe at his presidential rival John McCain as the Republican hammers away at Obama's lead in the polls. That makes it all the more tragic that Obama's attack yesterday missed its mark so widely. The Democrat's profoundly careless statement that "You can put lipstick on a pig — it's still a pig" was seized upon by supporters and opponents alike as a brutal attack of McCain's running mate Sarah Palin. It might be clear in context (see video after the jump) that Obama wasn't referring to the VP candidate. But Obama should have known it would be read that way after Palin's famous convention line, "What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick." The inevitable backlash and media firestorm will not only consume several precious days of the campaign news cycle — it will make it harder for Obama to take the hard swings he needs to take.

It seems to have taken less than 12 hours for Obama's comments to reach the front pages of both New York tabloids (see the Daily News' above and the Post) amid the sort of screaming headlines that are any politician's nightmare. The Drudge Report carried the story at the top of the site no fewer than four times, linking reports from ABC News, the Wall Street Journal and Politico. The Times covered the comment on its Caucus blog and on page A20 of the newspaper (it's not clear if deadline constraints impacted placement of the late-breaking story). The topic will no doubt dominate cable news throughout the day.

Obama is reportedly planning to say he's being unfairly smeared. But what he needs to be doing is what everyone seems to wish he would do — introduce some Change to his own campaign message and hit McCain and Palin hard in a new way, moving beyond his old line that McCain would represent a continuation of the despised Bush presidency. Unfortunately he is yet again on the defensive.

As if to highlight their greater agility, the McCain camp had already crafted the comment into an attack ad before the end of the day yesterday.