Friday, February 22, 2008

Sen. John McCain said yesterday a New York Times report questioning his personal and professional relationship with a female lobbyist is “not true,” even as the article gave conservatives a reason to rally with Mr. McCain against the newspaper.

“At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust,” Mr. McCain said at a morning press conference while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in Ohio. He also denied a romantic relationship with the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman.

The New York Times, citing unnamed sources, reported Mr. McCain was warned by aides nearly a decade ago about his relationship with the lobbyist, fearing he was risking his reputation. The New York Times also quoted a former top adviser saying he warned her to stay away from the Arizona senator.

Separately, The Washington Post reported yesterday on Mr. McCain’s dealings with the lobbyist and on two letters he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission in 1999 seeking action on a Pittsburgh television station sale she was lobbying for. At the time, Mr. McCain was chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which had oversight over the FCC.

But Lanny Davis, a former special adviser to President Clinton and longtime Democratic activist, who was lobbying on the same deal, said the charges were meritless and Mr. McCain actually refused the lobbying team’s request for an elaborate letter to the FCC supporting the proposed sale of a television station.

Mr. Davis said the likely Republican presidential nominee would only write a “neutral” letter inquiring about the status of a communication company’s effort to buy the station. In the letter, Mr. McCain only urged the FCC to act “soon.”

“It is sad and unfortunate that facts are not included to make a fair story and that good journalism rules were not followed,” said Mr. Davis, who emphasized he doesn’t support the Arizona senator’s presidential bid.

Mr. Davis said The Post’s article omitted comments he gave a reporter four weeks ago when asked about the likelihood Mr. McCain aided a lobbyist. He also said the paper disregarded quotes it previously published from him that defended Mr. McCain’s actions. Mr. Davis said the New York Times never contacted him.

Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain, said they had provided the New York Times with a list of bills Mr. McCain sponsored that went against the interests of Alcalde & Fay, the firm the lobbyist worked for.

Mr. Black also said Mr. McCain’s Senate office chief of staff reviewed the records for a three-year period to determine how Mr. McCain had positioned himself on issues in which the lobby firm was involved.

“McCain was against them on two-thirds of those issues,” he said. “They don’t have a single one where it looks like McCain did them a single favor.”

Mr. McCain, who has nearly sewn up the Republican nomination for president, held his response press conference with his wife, Cindy, at his side. She said she was “very, very disappointed in the New York Times.”

So were plenty of conservative leaders, even some who have been critical of Mr. McCain during this campaign. They said such a story could serve as reason for some conservative voters to overcome their wariness of Mr. McCain.

Top conservative radio talk-show hosts, who have been critical of Mr. McCain as a Republican candidate, yesterday chose to go after the New York Times instead.

“If McCain is telling the truth, then this looks like a totally unjustified attack and irresponsible journalism and will help persuade conservatives that if McCain is being attacked by the New York Times, then he can’t be all bad,” said Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, which helps finance anti-tax candidates.

The New York Times had been working on the report for months. It endorsed Mr. McCain in the Republican nomination battle last month.

The timing led some conservatives to wonder whether the newspaper delayed publication until after Mr. McCain had chased his rivals from the Republican race.

“The story itself was pretty light,” said American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene. “What is more interesting is why, if the Times thinks it legit and had it essentially in the can before the New Hampshire and Florida primaries, they didn’t run it then. Was the delay a journalistic or a political call?”

Still, some conservatives said the story could reaffirm worries voters have.

“There is no question that this will give social conservatives greater pause as they consider the candidacy of John McCain,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, an evangelical who did not endorse any of the presidential nomination candidates.

“But you must realize that as much as conservatives distrust politicians, there is a greater distrust of the mainstream media which is embodied in the New York Times,” Mr. Perkins said.

Mr. McCain and the Republican National Committee sought to turn the fight into a fundraising bonanza, with each sending out fundraising pleas by e-mail.

The New York Times used the lobbyist anecdote as an opportunity to examine Mr. McCain’s broader ethics record, including accusations nearly two decades ago that he and four other senators used their influence on behalf of Charles Keating, a McCain supporter who ran a savings and loan.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, defended the article in a statement.

“On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself. On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready,” he said.

” ‘Ready’ means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats,” he said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said the story puts a dent in Mr. McCain’s good government credentials.

“Now it looks like John McCain is part of the corruption problem in Washington,” he said on the “National Journal On Air” satellite radio program, adding Mr. McCain “doesn’t seem to really have an ethical compass.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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