Can McCain Survive NYT Bombshell About His Coziness with a Female Lobbyist?

| Thu Feb. 21, 2008 10:01 AM EST

The angriest man in America this morning? It's not John McCain; it's Mitt Romney. McCain stands accused by The New York Times of having too cozy a relationship with Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist for telecom firms with interests before a Senate committee he led. But Romney must be gnashing his white-as-can-be teeth over the timing of this disclosure. Though the newspaper had been working on the report for months, it was not published until the revelations could do Romney no good. Which is why Bay Buchanan, who was a strategist for Romney, was braying on CNN last night about the Times' playing politics with this piece.

At the same time, she accused the paper of mounting a smear job. The story does put conservatives in an awkward position. Many hate McCain, but they despise The New York Times. So what do Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, and the others do? It's like choosing between Stalin and Hitler.

Smear job did seem to be the preferred Republican reply. The first email to journalists the McCain campaign sent out in response to the story included quotes from Washington power-lawyer Bob Bennett, a Democrat who had represented McCain in negotiations with the Times. He had appeared on Fox News and called the article a "smear job," comparing it to the "smear campaign" waged against McCain in 2000 prior to the South Carolina primary. (In that ugly episode, McCain critics accused him of siring a child out of wedlock, of being brainwashed in Vietnam, and more.)

But the Bennett statements disseminated by the campaign did not dispute a single fact in the Times article, which noted that McCain had taken official action on behalf of one of Iseman's clients. In a real stunner, the Times story includes on-the-record comments from John Weaver, a former top strategist for McCain, who told the paper about a meeting he had with Iseman, during which he apparently warned her to stay away from McCain. This conversation, Weaver said, followed "a discussion among the campaign leadership" about Iseman. He added, "Ms. Iseman's involvement in the campaign, it was felt by us, could undermine that effort." Iseman disputed Weaver's account of the meeting.

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It's unclear what sort of relationship McCain and Iseman had—let's say it, sex or no sex?—but with a former McCain adviser on the record regarding the matter, the story does have solidity. (The paper also refers to unidentified sources involved in the Iseman business.) Weaver, who was forced out of the McCain campaign last year when it appeared to be a lost cause, must have been damn mad if he was talking to reporters about the Iseman affair. Hell hath no fury as a campaign strategist scorned.

Will the piece harm McCain? Was Mike Huckabee wise to stay in the race? The fallout has yet to settle. At this point, McCain may well survive the revelation. The critical question is, is that all there is? If more details come out, more evidence of quid pro quos for Iseman, McCain will be in rough waters. Bay Buchanan—who was clearly conflicted by the McCain-vs.-Times angle—noted that McCain, as of last night, had yet to declare there was no hanky-panky (of the non-legislative type) between him and Iseman. Our party is the party of family values, she noted, and we Republicans need to hear him proclaim he's been faithful to his wife. (Historical note: McCain was not faithful to his first wife.)

McCain is lucky the disclosure is coming out now, for it may well have sunk him in the heat of the earlier primaries. He has plenty of time before the general election. But at this moment, only he and Iseman (and maybe a few others) know if the full truth is bigger—and more damaging—than the story that has appeared.

UPDATE: On Thursday morning, McCain denied that he had ever done any favors for Iseman. He said he had been unaware of any meeting between Weaver and Iseman. He described her as a friend.

UPDATE UPDATE: Limbaugh chose a side on his Thursday show: he came out against the liberal media. He called the article a drive-by shooting and claimed the Times was "trying to destroy" McCain because he is a Republican. That must also be why the Times endorsed McCain.

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