WASHINGTON — John McCain emphatically and persistently denied Thursday that he had any personal ties to a female lobbyist and said that no one in his campaign had advised him to avoid her.
The New York Times triggered twin political and journalistic firestorms by raising questions about the relationship between McCain, who's cultivated an image of moral rectitude and political independence, and corporate lobbyist Vicki Iseman. The story said that aides had tried to discourage the Arizona senator from dealing with Iseman eight years ago because they feared that "the relationship had become romantic."
McCain said the account was "not true." Times Executive Editor Bill Keller defended it, saying in a statement: "On the substance, we think the story stands for itself."
It was unclear Thursday what, if any, political fallout the story might cause and whether it would help or hurt McCain's quest for the presidency. Also unclear were the journalism repercussions.
Some critics faulted the Times for relying on anonymous sources, retelling old stories about McCain and raising the possibility that the senator and the lobbyist may have had a romantic relationship without providing more than hearsay. Others said the story provided legitimate information about a presidential candidate.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, McCain's leading rival for the GOP nomination and a Baptist minister, dismissed the paper's allegations. "I take him at his word," Huckabee said. "For me to get into it is completely immaterial."
There also was talk that conservatives who've been reluctant to embrace McCain because of his stands on immigration, torture and other issues might now rally behind him.
However, David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, said he doubted that the story would trigger a gusher of sympathy. "I don't think for most conservatives the Times dictates where they're going to end up," he said with a laugh.
Before the day was over, though, both McCain's campaign and the Republican Party had launched fundraising efforts tied to the story.
Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. "Mike" Duncan wrote supporters that the Times "has proven once again that the liberal mainstream media will do whatever it takes to put Senator Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the White House." So, he said, "please make an urgent secure contribution of $1,000, $500, $100, $50 or $25" to help the RNC.
The Times said that some of McCain's top advisers, fearing there might be an intimate relationship between the two, "intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on condition of anonymity."
The story relies heavily on two unidentified former McCain "associates" but doesn't characterize their current relationships with him. A former McCain aide, John Weaver, told both the Times and The Washington Post that he met with Iseman at Washington's Union Station to persuade her to stop seeing the senator.
The story also reports that Iseman, whose clients include firms with substantial business before the Senate Commerce Committee, "had been turning up with (McCain) at fundraisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client's corporate jet." McCain chaired the committee at various times from 1997 to 2005.
McCain on Thursday almost categorically denied the story's main points.
"I've served this country honorably for half a century," the likely Republican presidential nominee said with his wife, Cindy, at his side. "At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust."
McCain was asked if he ever had a meeting with any of his staffers in which they told him to stay away from Iseman or to be concerned about appearing to be too close to a lobbyist.
"No," McCain said.
"No meeting ever occurred?" a reporter asked.
"No," McCain answered.
"No staffer was ever concerned about a possible romantic relationship?" the questioner continued.
"If they were," McCain said, "they didn't communicate that to me."
"Did you ever have such a relationship?" another reporter asked.
"No," McCain said.
He described his relationship with Iseman as having "seen her on occasion, particularly at receptions and fundraisers and appearances before the committee. I have many friends in Washington who represent various interests and those who don't. And I consider her a friend."
The media firestorm was triggered in part by the fact that the Times story, and a similar one reported hours later by the Washington Post, included extensive historical material — some of it eight years old — and background and new material attributed mostly to anonymous sources.
Most of the incidents reported by the Times had been reported before, including McCain's 1991 reprimand for "poor judgment in intervening with the regulators" on behalf of savings and loan official Charles Keating, who later wound up in jail, and a letter he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission at least eight years ago on behalf of a corporation whose jet he used.
The newspaper's article drew criticism but also supporters in the journalism community.
American Journalism Review Editor Rem Rieder called the story "defensible" because McCain cites his independence from lobbyists as an important campaign theme. "The ethical blind spot, as well as a possible pattern, make it a story," Rieder said.
Bryce Nelson, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, said that while the piece's structure was "strange," he thought that the news about the aides' concern "is certainly relevant."
Others found the story wanting.
"The hole in this story is the innuendo they can't prove," said Philip Meyer, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
"All of this is old," said Amy Mitchell, the deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, a research group. While there's nothing wrong with writing about a candidate's past, she said, "it should be revealing, and we've been through this before."
"This would have been a legitimate story when it was a story — during the 2000 campaign," said S. Robert Lichter, the president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington research group. "It looks like an expose, acts like an expose, but it's not an expose."
To learn more about Vicki Iseman:
To read Bill Keller's statement: www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003713800