The Note: McCain at War

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There's nothing like the whiff of a sex scandal to inject some life into a Republican race that's pretty much (yet still not entirely) over and done.

Now we know what all the fuss was about -- and we'll find out in the coming days whether it was worth the wait. There, hiding under a humble tag calling it part of The New York Times' biographical "Long Run" series, is the story that's rocking the presidential campaign this Thursday -- with the not-so-subtle suggestion that Sen. John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist.

"A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client's corporate jet," write a Times crew led by Jim Rutenberg. "Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself -- instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him."

Among the details buried low in the story: "A former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep [Vicki] Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman's access to his offices. In interviews, the two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations with Mr. McCain, warning him that he was risking his campaign and career."

This is not (as the Times headline would have you believe) about "self-confidence on ethics." It's about sex. It's a storyline that at this moment is filled with innuendo -- and suggestions that the Times was bullied into running the story on what only MIGHT have been an eight-year-old affair by the controversy over the fact that it wasn't being published.

It also, though, cuts to the heart of who McCain is as a politician -- and thus the harsh and fierce pushback from his campaign. Whether or not it jeopardizes McCain's path to the nomination (and, at this point, it won't) the Straight Talk Express can't be stranded on the side of the road over suggestions that he traded favors for a (maybe) girlfriend.

Thus the anti-Times onslaught: "The New York Times is playing the National Enquirer," McCain adviser Charlie Black tells ABC's Ron Claiborne.

"It was a friendship and a professional relationship, and nothing more than that," Black told ABC's Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America." "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. . . . This doesn't meet the journalistic standards of a third-rate tabloid. . . . If they can't find one source on the record for this, they shouldn't be running this story. . . . This is nonsense. It's gossip and rumors."

McCain, R-Ariz., faces reporters at 9 am ET Thursday in Ohio -- and expect it to be one of those tour-de-force press conferences, with McCain dialing up the indignity and the outrage and staying until every last question is answered (and every last question is asked of The New York Times' motivations).

It will be a defining moment for the McCain campaign; with much of the news coverage focusing on the denials, how McCain comes off (even more than his campaign's detailed rebuttal) could determine whether the story has legs. Regardless, thought, this won't go away that easily -- not when the Times drops a bombshell like this, not when there's been this much build-up and yet this many lingering questions.

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