WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain adamantly denied yesterday having had an affair nine years ago with a Washington lobbyist, and his presidential campaign sought to use the furor over the insinuation of one in a New York Times article to shore up his standing with conservatives and raise campaign cash.
McCain advisers worked furiously to turn the spotlight on the Times, denouncing the article as "shameless," "a total fabrication," "nonsense" and "a smear" by "the biggest liberal newspaper in America."-
By midafternoon, the Arizona Republican's campaign had e-mailed a fundraising appeal declaring that McCain was under attack by "the liberal establishment and their allies at The New York Times."
McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, said he considered the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, a friend like many others in the lobbying community, but that he had not had a romantic relationship with the then-31-year-old lobbyist, nor had he taken any positions specifically to benefit her clients.
"I'm very disappointed in the New York Times piece. It's not true," said McCain, who appeared with his wife, Cindy, at a news conference in Toledo, Ohio, where he was campaigning.
Iseman could not be reached for comment. She denied having had an affair with McCain, according to the Times.
The Times article did not directly assert a romantic relationship between McCain and Iseman, but quoted anonymous staff members as expressing concern that one might be developing.
A similar article by The Washington Post, posted hours after the Times' report was released, described a friendship between Iseman and McCain, but did not suggest an affair.
The articles have been sharply criticized by some journalistic observers because they rely on unnamed sources to suggest the possibility of an illicit relationship. Time magazine's managing editor, Rick Stengel, told MSNBC that he wouldn't have run the story.
Both articles included statements by John Weaver, formerly a top McCain strategist, that he met Iseman to warn her to stay away from his boss, who was gearing up to seek the 2000 Republican presidential nomination as a critic of cozy relationships between special interests and lawmakers.
"Her comments, which had gotten back to some of us, that she had strong ties to the Commerce Committee [chaired by McCain] and his staff were wrong and harmful and I so informed her and asked her to stop with these comments and to not be involved in the campaign. Nothing more and nothing less," Weaver said in an e-mailed response to questions late yesterday from the Chicago Tribune.
At his news conference, McCain said he knew nothing of a meeting between Iseman and Weaver.
In his e-mail to the Tribune, Weaver said, "I did not inform Senator McCain that I asked for a meeting with Ms. Iseman." But Weaver did not respond to a follow-up query about whether he told McCain about the meeting after it occurred.
Weaver, who left McCain's campaign when it was foundering last summer, said he still strongly supports McCain.
"From the moment I left the campaign until today, not one day - not one - has gone by that I haven't reactively or proactively talked with the campaign leadership, with state leadership about the campaign and how to win. To suggest anything else is wrong, a lie and meant to do nothing but harm," he said.
The Times' article had been rumored for weeks to be in the works and the online Drudge Report had reported Dec. 20 that McCain had hired Robert Bennett, a well-connected Democratic lawyer, to help him deal with the Times as it reported the story.
The Times editorial page has endorsed McCain for the Republican nomination, but McCain allies said the long incubation of an article that did not deliver either an admission of an affair or proof of one suggested an agenda to discredit McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential standard-bearer.
"They knew they didn't have a story and something provoked them to run a story they didn't believe in," said McCain senior adviser Charles Black. "This is a story of gossip and rumor-mongering, which is wrong, which is phony and which doesn't meet appropriate journalistic standards."
Bennett derided the article as "a big piece of cotton candy. When you bite into it, there's not much there."
Times Editor Bill Keller stood by the article.
"On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself," Keller said in a statement. "On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready. `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. This story was no exception. It was a long time in the works. It reached my desk late Tuesday afternoon. After a final edit and a routine check by our lawyers, we published it."
McCain officials challenged the accuracy of key aspects of the article, including assertions that the staff banned Iseman from McCain's office because she was hanging around all the time.
"There was only one staffer who had the authority or the ability to do that, and that was me," said Mark Salter, McCain's longtime chief of staff. "And I never did anything of the kind because I had no reason to."
McCain's lone remaining rival for the GOP nomination, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, declined to try to reap political gains from the story.
"I have gotten to know Senator McCain over the past 14 months," Huckabee told reporters in Houston. "Senator McCain emphatically denied an improper relationship this morning at a news conference. ... I only know him to be a man of integrity. Today he denied any of that was true. I take him at his word."
Jill Zuckman and Andrew Zajac write for the Chicago Tribune.