By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
February 25, 2008
He spent much of it defending himself against charges that he did special favors for a female telecommunications lobbyist, whom his top aide had urged to stay away from the senator.
Then came a warning from the Republican chairman of the Federal Elections Commission that he may not be able to drop out of the presidential public financing system. If he can't, he could be outspent by the Democratic nominee by 10-to-1 -- or more -- before the GOP convention in September. Because of a dispute in the Senate over one of President Bush's nominees to the agency, the FEC lacks a quorum to hear McCain's case.
"It just puts McCain in a pickle," said Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
In the short term, McCain has turned the controversy over a story published in The New York Times to his advantage. But reverberations from the lobbyist story may dog him through the November election.
While McCain, with his wife at his side, denied the story, his aides hurled a torrent of criticism at the Times for running a story they called a "smear." Conservative radio hosts, who've been bashing McCain for weeks, closed ranks behind him to decry what Rush Limbaugh calls the "drive-by media."
Within hours of its publication, McCain was using the story to raise money -- and aides reported one of their best 24-hour periods of fund-raising.
"Things could still turn sour, but right now he has a sweet pitcher of lemonade after being presented with a bushel full of lemons," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Sabato, who wrote the 1991 book "Feeding Frenzy," about politicians and the media during scandals, said the McCain camp put together the swiftest response he's ever seen.
"There are reasons for it -- they knew the story was coming and had months to plan for it," Sabato said. He said McCain aides capitalized on the fact that the Times had no proof of an affair -- yet raised it as innuendo -- which McCain used to discredit the entire story.
"In these kind of controversies, you have to have the goods," he said. "If you don't have the goods, you can do some damage to a candidate, but if it's in that gray area, then the candidate is probably going to get the benefit of the doubt."
Still, political experts said the controversy leaves McCain with some vulnerabilities heading into the fall campaign.
Most importantly, McCain's story must hold true. He has denied having an affair or doing any favors for the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, and also denied having any conversations with staffers who warned him about his ties to her.
If anyone were to come forward, on the record, and question his account, McCain's credibility could be severely damaged.
"If more information comes out, particularly from credible, named sources that suggest McCain was not telling the truth, then I think he's in serious trouble," said Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington. "Right now you have to give him the presumption of innocence, but there is a lot of digging that is going to be done."
The controversy also opens new lines of attack for McCain's opponents, who may now seek to chip away at the Arizona senator's reputation as a maverick and a reformer by pointing to his ties to lobbyists.
McCain on Friday found himself defending his hiring of several lobbyists for his top campaign staff, including campaign manager Rick Davis, a former lobbyist who represented telecommunications firms, and senior adviser Charlie Black, whose lobbying firm has represented drug companies, automakers, oil companies and defense contractors, among others.
"These people have honorable records, and they're honorable people, and I'm proud to have them as part of my team," McCain said Friday.
Ironically, the last time this charge was levied against McCain was in the 2000 campaign, when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush portrayed McCain as hypocritical for leading the fight for campaign-finance reform while raising money from lobbyists with interests before the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chaired.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean picked up on the same theme in an interview with the National Journal last week, saying, "This is a guy who is very close to the lobbyist community, a guy who has been documented again and again by taking contributions and then doing favors for it. This is not a guy who is a reformer."
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