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McCain Story: What It Means

The New York Times front-page story detailing an alleged relationship between Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and a female lobbyist has shaken up what had become a sedate Republican presidential nomination fight and forced the all-but-certain GOP nominee to directly rebut charges of marital infidelity and trading favors.

The story has triggered a huge controversy over whether the revelations are a cause for alarm about McCain and his judgment or, as McCain's camp and a chorus of conservative talking heads assert, a shameless hatchet job by a prominent liberal newspaper. Despite the inevitable changeability of the story, let's assess -- from a purely political perspective -- what we know and what we don't.

Let's start with what we know.

The Times reported that early in McCain's first run for the White House eight years ago, one of his top advisers -- concerned about the propriety of the relationship -- intervened by privately warning Iseman to stay away from the Arizona senator. When news organizations reported that McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist's client, some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement.

McCain this morning delivered an unequivocal denial of the charges leveled against him in the story. He flatly denied that he and Iseman had had any sort of romantic relationship, or any relationship beyond what he would normally have with someone lobbying him as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. He also said he was entirely unaware of a meeting between John Weaver, at the time a senior McCain political strategist, and Iseman at Union Station. Weaver has acknowledged that he asked Iseman at that meeting to steer clear of McCain.

McCain's account is not entirely inconsistent with what Weaver has said publicly, although it does strain credulity a bit. "I did not inform Senator McCain that I asked for a meeting with Ms. Iseman," Weaver told The Fix today. "Her comments, which had gotten back to some of us, that she had strong ties to the Commerce Committee [chairman] 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."

So Weaver, one of McCain's closest advisers at the time, met with Iseman, but says now that he never talked to McCain about his meeting with the lobbyist, either before or after the meeting. And McCain says he had no knowledge of the meeting.

McCain was emphatic in saying he was totally in the dark about Weaver's meeting with Iseman, an essential assertion in attempting to knock down the Times story. But his unqualified denial leaves him no wiggle room if more information surfaces in the coming weeks about what McCain knew and when he first knew it.

There is much that the public doesn't know about McCain's dealings with the telecommunications lobbyist and her clients years back, including considerable potentially exculpatory information that McClain complained was ignored by the Times in its lengthy article. So, at the moment, it's tough to draw hard and fast conclusions.

But one immediate political impact of the story has been the rallying of prominent conservatives behind McCain, as detailed by Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin of the Politico. Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio show host, derided the story as "Page Six gossip" on his program today.

Ironically, Limbaugh and many other conservative talk radio hosts have attacked McCain for weeks for being an unacceptable choice to head the GOP ticket this fall. It didn't help matters that the Times editorial page endorsed McCain for the Republican nomination. One Republican observer put it this way to The Fix: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." That is, conservatives may not like or trust McCain but they like and trust the New York Times a lot less.

McCain sought to play up that line of attack during his press conference this morning. "I was not trying to dissuade [New York Times executive editor Bill Keller] from -- in any way from doing the story," he said. "I know the New York Times."

And, in a fundraising email just sent from McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, the anti-Times argument is made even more explicit. "We could expect attacks were coming; as soon as John McCain appeared to be locking up the Republican nomination, the liberal establishment and their allies at the New York Times have gone on the attack," wrote Davis.

It's no secret to anyone watching this Republican race closely that McCain is still struggling to bring conservatives into the fold. Time after time he lost the conservative vote in early primary and caucus states; of the 24 states that have voted to date, McCain received the most support from self-identified conservatives in just five (Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Wisconsin).

Could this be the galvanizing force that unites this key voting bloc behind McCain?

Perhaps.

We've long believed that conservatives would eventually come home to McCain when faced with a choice between someone they largely agree with and someone they don't -- meaning either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton . While it is fashionable at the moment among conservatives to cast a vote against McCain, when November comes it is hard to see these rock-ribbed conservatives choosing a Democrat.

What this incident may do -- again assuming that nothing more damaging emerges over the coming days -- is to energize conservatives behind McCain in a way that they might not have been otherwise. Most conservatives would likely have come home to McCain in the end but there was a segment of voters who would have stayed home. They may not now -- especially if McCain and his camp can cast this controversy as an example of the liberal media trying to destroy a conservative Republican. The story has the potential in the short term to turn McCain into a conservative cause celebre.

The long-term impact is far harder to anticipate. At his press conference today, McCain sought to place his relationship with Iseman in the context of the contacts he regularly has with lobbyists in Washington. "I have many friends who represent various interests...particularly before my committee," McCain said. "And I had meetings with hundreds of them and various interests. And that was my job to do, to get their input."

While that argument may be technically correct, it's a political loser -- especially in a change-oriented election like this one. Obama's political rise has been fueled, at least in part, by his denunciation of the pay-to-play culture in Washington and his promise to clean up Washington if elected president.

McCain, too, has railed against special interests throughout his political life. But, by trying to defuse the Iseman questions, the Arizona senator may well have created a long-term problem for himself.

This is a story that isn't going away any time soon. And we'll do our best to stay on top of it.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 21, 2008; 4:20 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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