``At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust,'' said McCain, a four-term Arizona senator and a hero of the Vietnam War. He described the lobbyist as a friend.
McCain and his wife, standing together at a news conference, said they were disappointed that The New York Times ran its page one article, and his campaign referred to a ``smear campaign'' and ``gutter politics'' in the midst of the presidential race.
The allegations in the Thursday report in the Times, and a story in The Washington Post, contradict core themes of McCain's campaign—that he would bring honor and integrity to the White House as well as a record of changing business-as-usual Washington ways.
Even the suggestion of marital impropriety—though rejected by both McCain and his wife—would seem to risk further damaging his acrimonious relationship with the social conservatives whose support he desperately needs in the general election campaign against a fired-up Democratic Party.
In a twist, however, there were early signs that the brouhaha might actually help McCain solidify the GOP base.
Conservative pundits who are some of McCain's harshest critics could have jumped on the issue to question the strength of McCain's family values. Instead, they went after the Times.
``There is nothing in it here that you can say is true,'' Rush Limbaugh told his radio listeners. He accused the newspaper of ``trying to take him out.'' Another conservative voice, Laura Ingraham, contended the newspaper was trying to ``contaminate'' the GOP's nominee with an ``absurd attack.''
By Thursday afternoon, the Arizona senator had begun a fundraising appeal based on the story.
``The New York Times ... has shown once again that it cannot exercise good journalistic judgment when it comes to dealing with a conservative Republican,'' campaign manager Rick Davis wrote in an e-mail to supporters. ``We need your help to counteract the liberal establishment and fight back against The New York Times by making an immediate contribution today.''
``We think the story speaks for itself,'' Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in a written statement. ``On the timing, our policy is we publish stories when they are ready.''
At the very least, the episode gives Democrats an opening to try to exploit McCain's decades-long ties to Washington even though he's known as a Republican lawmaker willing to stand up to special interests and reduce the influence of lobbyists. It's a reputation he has carefully honed in the aftermath of the Keating Five influence-peddling scandal decades ago. The Senate cited him for ``poor judgment'' in that matter but took no further action.
The Democratic National Committee said Thursday in a statement: ``After 25 years in Washington, the real John McCain is just like the other D.C. insiders he rails against on the campaign trail. John McCain's 'do as I say, not as I do' approach to ethics and lobbying reform can be called a lot of things. 'Straight talk' isn't one of them.''
Campaigning in Texas, Democrat Barack Obama declined to comment on the story.
Several Republicans unaffiliated with McCain's campaign doubted it would have a long-term effect.
``The fact that it was The New York Times and the lack of sufficient detail undermines the credibility of the story,'' said Christopher LaCivita, a Republican strategist in Virginia, noting that the Times is considered a liberal boogyman for the GOP rank-and-file. He added: ``Barring anything coming out that's new, I don't see this having much impact on McCain because his character is so well established.''
``Most Republicans will look at this is The New York Times sliming Republicans,'' agreed John Feehery, a Republican consultant who was an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. ``If there is going to be lasting damage, it's going to be with independents.''
Aware of the high stakes, McCain officials acted quickly. The campaign distributed statements deriding the story, deployed senior advisers to spread that message on TV news shows and arranged a news conference for McCain and his wife of nearly 28 years to personally address the matter as they campaigned in Toledo, Ohio.
``I'm very disappointed in the article,'' he told reporters.
Added Cindy McCain: ``My children and I not only trust my husband but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America. He's a man of great character, and I'm very, very disappointed in The New York Times.''
In the article, months in the making, anonymous McCain aides were quoted as having urged McCain and Iseman to stay away from each other in the run-up to his failed presidential campaign in 2000. In a separate story in The Washington Post, John Weaver, a longtime aide who split with McCain last year, said he personally met with Iseman and asked her to steer clear of the senator some eight years ago.
Both stories said aides worried about the appearance of McCain having close ties to a lobbyist with business before the Commerce Committee. The stories also said McCain wrote letters and pushed legislation involving television station ownership that would have benefited Iseman's clients.
McCain said he was not aware of Weaver's meeting and no staffers had indicated to him they were concerned about his association with Iseman. ``If they were, they didn't communicate that to me,'' McCain said Thursday.
He called Iseman a friend, and said he wasn't any closer to her than to other lobbyists. He said, ``I have many friends who represent various interests, ranging from the firemen to the police to senior citizens to various interests, particularly before my committee.''
Efforts to reach Iseman for comment were unsuccessful.
McCain had briefly addressed the issue—and defended his integrity—in December when questioned about reports that the Times was investigating allegations of legislative favoritism.
``I've never done any favors for anybody—lobbyist or special-interest group,'' he told reporters after the Drudge Report posted a story online that said his aides had been trying to dissuade the newspaper from publishing a story because, the aides said, it wasn't factual.
McCain aides say they were taken off guard Wednesday afternoon when they learned the paper would publish the story. They suggested the Times was prompted to publish the story after learning that The New Republic, a conservative publication, was readying an article about newsroom debate over the story at the newspaper.
Editor’s Note: Liz Sidoti covers the presidential race for The Associated Press.