McCain manages to turn poison into wine

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John McCain appeared to have turned the poison of a newspaper article inferring improper and possibly even romantic ties with a female lobbyist in Washington into political wine last night as conservatives who had previously voiced scepticism about his candidacy rallied to defend him.

One day after The New York Times ran the potentially incendiary article about ties between Mr McCain, the presumptive nominee for the Republican nomination, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, on its front page, it was the newspaper rather than the senator that found itself on the defensive yesterday.

The counter-attack was launched by the McCain camp first thing on Thursday morning, including putting the senator, accompanied by his wife, Cindy McCain, before the media during a campaign tour in Ohio to deny all suggestion that he had done Ms Iseman special legislative favours or become emotionally close to her. "It's not true," Mr McCain said of the article.

Ironically, the article may end up helping the candidate by galvanising conservatives to make common cause in vilifying The New York Times. Among them was Laura Ingraham who noted that the Times had been working on the story since December.

"You wait until it's pretty much beyond a doubt that he's going to be the Republican nominee," Ms Ingraham said on her morning show, "and then you let it drop – drop some acid in the pool, contaminate the whole pool. That's what The New York Times thinks."

The newspaper took the unusual step yesterday of making the reporters of the story available to discuss the story in a website forum. Bill Keller, its editor-in-chief, meanwhile issued a statement defending the story. "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.

Mr Keller said he was not surprised by the swiftness of the McCain campaign's rebuttal. "It's textbook crisis control to change the subject by making the story about the messenger. And... I suspect his operatives see Times-bashing as a time-honoured way to rally the conservative base."

Even some liberal bloggers seemed unwilling to defend the article, which included the claim that during Mr McCain's last attempt at winning his party's nomination in 2000, staff members became so concerned by Ms Iseman's frequent appearances at his side that they challenged him to stop seeing her. However, most of the article is based on anecdotal evidence and anonymous sourcing.

"The story does rely on two former associates and obviously when you put a controversial, disputed story out there about a presidential candidate without names attached, you often incite the kind of criticism that The New York Times is receiving," said Howard Kurtz, who reports on the media industry for The Washington Post.

The McCain camp had known since the end of last year of the Times' interest in the story and even deployed lawyers to try to block its publication. It meant that when it finally appeared, they were ready to fight back.

The danger may not be over. All will change for the senator, who is inches from claiming the nomination, if anything surfaces to contradict his denials. He has built his political reputation on claims of ethical probity and his refusal to consort with the ubiquitous lobbyists of Washington.

The Washington Post last night published a story potentially highlighting hypocrisy in Mr McCain's cleaner-than-thou assertions, noting that a number of his most senior advisers had been hired from top Washington lobbying firms, including his chief political adviser, Charles Black.

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