It was Sen. John McCain's split-screen nightmare: he and his wife on one side of the television screen this morning denying an unsavory relationship; a photo of a young, attractive female lobbyist in a shimmering gold party gown on the other.
It was an all-too-familiar tableau—the chastened politician, the supportive spouse, questions raised, allegations denied.
"I have never done anything to betray the public trust," a somber McCain said during a press conference in Toledo, Ohio, just hours after a front-page New York Times story linked the 71-year-old Arizona senator and GOP presidential front-runner to lobbyist Vicki Iseman, 40. The newspaper, quoting former McCain aide John Weaver, reported that during his 2000 run for president, the senator's aides had warned her to stay away from him. And it detailed actions by the senator that benefited Iseman's client.
It was a story that much of Washington had been expecting for the past several months. The Times had been investigating McCain's relationship with Iseman so aggressively that the senator had called the newspaper's editor, Bill Keller ("not to dissuade him," McCain said this morning, just to encourage the paper to wrap it up), and had hired high-powered lawyer Bob Bennett to represent him.
Some GOP strategists have even suggested that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, McCain's lone remaining rival for the nomination, has remained in the race despite impossible odds on the chance that the investigation could derail the front-runner. (Huckabee E-mailed supporters late last night after the Times posted the story on its website, urging supporters to make comments on his blog and offering himself again as an alternative.)
McCain and his wife, Cindy, who stepped up to the microphone to defend her husband's honor, chose the route of blaming the New York Times for what the campaign has called a "smear." But the candidate, who has been methodically collecting wins and delegates and wooing skeptical conservatives on his path to the GOP nomination, acknowledged a reporter's question that the story may contradict his cultivated image as an anticorruption maverick who promised to bring change to Washington.
"I understand that," said McCain, clearly deflated but taking all questions before heading back to the campaign trail in Ohio. "This is a very disappointing event."
The senator said he'd "fully cooperated" with the Times on the story but never discussed the investigation with Weaver. Weaver told the Times he arranged a meeting with Iseman in 1999 to tell her to keep her distance from the senator after aides became concerned that the relationship had become romantic. McCain said Weaver remains a friend and said he thought he last saw Iseman, whom he also characterized as a friend, several months ago at an event.
McCain said he hoped Americans realized that "we can get this thing resolved and behind us and move forward with the campaign." But as he continues his hunt for delegates and his courting of conservative Republicans who are wary of some of his positions on taxes, immigration, and campaign finance reform, the immediate question for McCain may be: Do conservative Republicans hate the New York Times more than they do the longtime senator from Arizona?
He's banking on it. But where that leaves him in the fall, when he needs to court the nation's independent voters, remains an open and perhaps troubling question for his campaign.