Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., denied any and all allegations of impropriety laid out in a New York Times story questioning whether the presumptive GOP presidential nominee had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist 31 years his junior.
The article, citing two unnamed former associates, claimed that senior associates of McCain's became "convinced the relationship had become romantic" between McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman, and "intervened to protect the candidate from himself, instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him."
He may have a reputation for being hot-headed, but this morning in Toledo, Ohio, a serene McCain took questions from reporters until they ran out of them, answering a clear, definitive "no" when asked about details from the Times story.
Did staffers meet with him to express concern about his relationship with Iseman? "No," McCain said.
No meeting ever occurred? "No."
Were staffers worried about their relationship? "If they were, they didn't communicate that with me," McCain said.
Did he have an inappropriate relationship with her? "No," McCain said, describing her as "a friend."
And his wife, Cindy, stood by her man.
"He's a man of great character, and I'm very very disappointed in The New York Times," she said.
Said her husband "This whole story is based on anonymous sources."
NYT: 'The Story Speaks for Itself'
In a statement released today, The New York Times defended the report: "On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself."
The newspaper's Executive Editor Bill Keller also addressed the story's timing, a detail advisers to the fallen campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lamented this morning suggesting an early publication might have kept their candidate in the Republican race.
Keller said, "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."
'Straight Talk Express' Hits Bumpy RoadAt the very least, the controversy threatens to tarnish McCain's image not only as a maverick who stands up to special interests but as a "straight talker."
His daughter Megan has been chronicling life on the campaign trail blogging last night in a post titled "Lucky Girl:" "Politics is rough but I absolutely adore my Dad and this campaign and have never, ever stopped believing in him."
Conservative pundits -- detractors of McCain's mostly -- also criticized the Times' report today, while also taking the opportunity to elbow McCain for his coziness with the mainstream media.
And while Iseman has not spoken to the media today, her employer, Alcade & Fay President Kevin Fay, called The New York Times' allegations "completely and utterly false."
Fay described the firm's relationship with McCain as "professional, appropriate and consistent with his legislative, jurisdictional and constituent duties" and he called the story "based upon the fantasies of a disgruntled former campaign employee."
Former McCain Aide Confronted Lobbyist
Only one McCain aide is quoted by name in the Times story — former aide John Weaver, who left the campaign amid much controversy during the summer.
Weaver told ABC News today that in 1999 he met with Iseman in a coffee shop in Washington's Union Station to tell her to stop bragging about her access to McCain and his staff.
Iseman had been telling people, Weaver said, "that she had strong ties to the Commerce Committee 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."
Today, Weaver reiterated his support of McCain's presidential candidacy and said he "responded to the Times on the record about a meeting they already knew about. The campaign received a copy of my response to the Times the same day, which was in late December."
McCain's Moves as Commerce Chair
Many of Iseman's telecommunciations clients benefited from legislative moves McCain took as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, as when he urged the Federal Communications Commission to make a decision by a specific deadline on a matter that would benefit a McCain contributor and Iseman client: Paxson Communications.
Alongside denying that they had any inappropriate personal relationship, both McCain and Iseman deny that he did any favors for her telecommuncations clients as Commerce Committee chairman.
But past statements by McCain are now subject to harsher scrutiny. Of note is a trip McCain took with an aide and Iseman on a corporate jet owned by Paxson Communications, on whose behalf McCain wrote two letters to the FCC.
ABC News learned that in 2002 McCain was asked during a deposition about whether he remembered ever flying on a corporate jet with the lobbyist in question, and he said he did not recall.
In a Sept. 25, 2002, deposition in the Supreme Court case McConnell v. FEC, for instance, which challenged the constitutionality of the campaign finance reform law McCain had championed, McCain was asked about his flights on the Paxson Communications corporate jet and whether Iseman was present.
Q: How many times did you fly in Mr. Paxson's jet in the time period surrounding the writing of these letters?
McCain: I don't know. I can provide the answer for the record.
Q: Do you recall if Mr. Paxson was ever on his company jet at any of the occasions when you were flying on it?
McCain: I don't recall. You can easily get the manifest, but I don't recall. I flew all over the country in those days, almost daily.
Q: Do you recall if Mr. Paxson's lobbyist accompanied you on any of the corporate jet trips that you took?
McCain: I do not recall. Again, I know it's a matter of public record.
The McCain campaign said this was evidence that Iseman and the trip were not of great importance to McCain.
McCain has maintained he never took any legislative action as a favor to any corporate or special interest, or against his principles.
About that controversy, McCain today said, "The former chairman of the FCC at the time in 2000 said that was more than an appropriate role for me to play as chairman of the oversight committee."
But FCC Chairman William Kennard rebuked McCain for what he saw as a "highly unusual" -- even unprecedented -- request.
But another former FCC chairman, Michael Brown, told ABCNews' Lisa Stark today that while he is not familiar with the letters in question, he did not think such communications were extraordinary.
"If I had dollar for every letter like that I received from every congressman and senator, I'd be rich," Powell said.
Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Republican who was an FCC commissioner from 1997-2001 told ABCNews today that he also does not remember the particular vote or the letters from McCain at the center of this controversy. He defended McCain, saying he could never remember an instance when he was Commerce Committee chairman that he had been "remotely out of line."
However, when read the specific letters in question, Furchtgott-Roth did say they might be going "a bit far."
'Smear Campaign'McCain aides pushed back with strong words against The New York Times.
"It was a friendship and a professional relationship, and nothing more than that," senior campaign aide Charlie Black told "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts today.
"Unfortunately, The New York Times, the largest liberal newspaper in America, is running a false smear campaign against the integrity of the new conservative Republican nominee for president, John McCain, printing false news with no sources. This doesn't meet the journalistic standards of a third-rate tabloid."
Mark Salter, McCain's top aide, longtime adviser and the co-author of his several books, also vehemently denies the Times story, insists there was nothing inappropriate about his boss's relationship with Iseman and emphasizes he does not know what Weaver is talking about.
Speaking for himself and McCain, Salter said, "We had no knowledge of any conversation Weaver had with her."
Salter asserted that despite the Times reporting he is the only staffer with the standing to confront McCain on such an issue — as the two unnamed sources claim they did, telling the Times they "[warned] him that he was risking his campaign and career."
Salter said he never had such a confrontation. "I never did nor would I have a need to," he said.
Challenge to Weaver's Version
Iseman told the Times that she met with Weaver but challenged his version of events.
"I never discussed with him alleged things I had 'told people' that had made their way 'back to' him," she told the paper.
The Washington Post reported this morning that the message to Iseman at that Union Station meeting was "she should get lost."
The article is exactly the last kind of story a presidential candidate, let alone a candidate who prides himself on being a man of ethics who stands up to special interests, wants on the front page of major newspapers.
In an interview with ABC News, Bob Bennett -- the attorney McCain retained several months ago to prevent any "dirty tricks" from hurting his campaign as they did in 2000 -- aggressively shot down The New York Times story.
"I think it's a strange piece," Bennett said. "It's like a big piece of cotton candy, but when you bite into it -- there's not a whole lot there."
Bennett said the most important point is "there's no evidence of a breach of the public trust. There is no evidence. No solid evidence that he ever did a favor for a lobbyist that was inconsistent with the public benefit or his view of the merits of the case."
Bennett was hired by McCain after the Times first began asking questions about favors McCain may have done for Iseman's telecommunications clients at the Virginia firm.
Bennett said this all is a classic smear campaign, as he writes about in his new book. "If you really want to hurt somebody or diminish them in the eyes of the voting public, you allege impropriety and you toss in the sex angle. This has happened in several of the cases I've handled of the course of the years."