The Note: McCain at War

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.

As we wait for The New Republic to publish its take on the Times' internal deliberations, much of McCain's ire is directed squarely at the Times itself: "John McCain's campaign promised to "go to war" against the New York Times Wednesday night after the newspaper posted its long-awaited story on McCain's alleged relationship with a telecom lobbyist," Politico's Jonathan Martin and Michael Calderone report.

Among the questions still out there -- along with who the blabbing former aides are, and what was really behind John Weaver's Union Station meeting with Iseman -- what exactly was denied to the Times, and what exactly is being denied now?

Mark Salter talks to Time's Ana Marie Cox about what went down -- and the underlined portion is crossed out in Cox's write-up, apparently at Salter's request: "Salter says McCain called the paper's editor, Bill Keller, to deny the both substance of the more lurid allegations -- having to do with Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist, and her possible "romantic" relationship with McCain -- and to protest his innocence in allegedly "betraying the public trust" with regard to legislation after hearing from former staffers who had been contacted to confirm aspects of the story."

The story at this point is unlikely to impact the nomination -- the fight is too far along. McCain's remaining Republican opponent, former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., has a very big decision to make, but nothing in his time as a candidate suggests a proclivity toward the gutter (or a willingness to take the Times' word for something).

(The frustration, meanwhile, in what's left of Romney land is palpable: This was the story they were convinced would take down McCain, and it's being published after Mitt Romney is out of the race and on the McCain bandwagon. Per ABC's John Berman, some advisers to the former governor are convinced that the story would have sunk McCain if it had been published before New Hampshire, or before Florida.)

The story is still short of confirmable, rock-solid details that would push it forward -- though every news organization on the planet is now looking for smoking guns. "Get ready for a feeding frenzy, with the press as the sharks and John McCain as the bloody chum," Michael Goodwin writes in his New York Daily News column.

Short of some THERE there, it's unlikely to be a deal-breaker. "The NY Times has NO evidence in their story that there was actually a romantic relationship. No phone calls, e-mails, etc.," the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody writes.

"Will some people be put off by the alleged romantic relationship? Sure, but I'm not convinced it's a killer when it comes to McCain's courting of the evangelical vote."

And as long as he can focus questions on the Times' decision to publish, McCain should end up fine. Commentary's Jennifer Rubin raises one possible outcome: "that the story will perversely help McCain with certain elements in the conservative base that have long complained McCain has been too cozy with liberal media," she writes.

"If mutual antagonism toward the New York Times and the prospect of an ultra-liberal opponent can't bring McCain and the conservative base together, I suppose nothing will."

The Washington Post adds a few details to the story in its scramble to match the Times: "Three telecom lobbyists and a former McCain aide, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Iseman spoke up regularly at meetings of telecom lobbyists in Washington, extolling her connections to McCain and his office. She would regularly volunteer at those meetings to be the point person for the telecom industry in dealing with McCain's office."

The story does overshadow the day's big event -- Obama v. Clinton, Round Two. Their date is set for 8 pm ET on CNN, in a face-off in Austin, Texas, and we have former president Bill Clinton helpfully outlining the stakes: "If she wins Texas and Ohio I think she will be the nominee. If you don't deliver for her, I don't think she can be. It's all on you," she said, per ABC's Sarah Amos.

So it's all on these two debates that take place over these next six days, one in each of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's must-win states. These are her two moments to directly change the race's dynamics -- and, while she's at it, perhaps get to the business of giving voters a reason to support her that isn't tied to Sen. Barack Obama's shortcomings.

Or maybe not so much -- the attacks are getting sharper: Clinton, D-N.Y., is now "asserting flatly that her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination is not prepared to serve as commander in chief," Anne Kornblut and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post. "Instead of shifting course, Clinton redoubled her attempt to undermine his change-oriented message." Said Clinton: "Let's get real."

What's real, though, is that Clinton is losing the Democratic race at this particular moment, and she needs to slice into Obama's growing delegate edge if she wants to play the delegate games her campaign is girding for.

An all-out Austin attack is unlikely to work: "She will again face the challenge that has repeatedly stymied her: how to discredit her popular opponent without hurting herself," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.

"Even now, after a string of defeats, her advisers are divided over how to proceed as they head toward what could be her last stands, in Ohio and Texas on March 4," Nagourney reports.

"Some -- led by Mark Penn, her chief strategist -- have been pushing Mrs. Clinton to draw sharper and deeper contrasts with Mr. Obama, arguing that she has no other option, campaign officials said. Others, particularly Mandy Grunwald, her media adviser, have pushed for a less aggressive approach, arguing that attacks would not help Mrs. Clinton's campaign in an environment in which she is increasingly appearing to struggle, aides said."

The Los Angeles Times' Peter Nicholas picks up on that split: "Still, the campaign seems to be doubling its bet on the message that caused so much division among top aides before the first caucuses in Iowa," he writes. "Some people close to the campaign's inner circle believe Clinton should make more of an effort to show a warmer, softer side before the March 4 primaries."

Amid the campaign infighting, Newsweek's Howard Fineman discerns a strategy. "The Clintonites will play an attack-and-wait game, hoping that Obama somehow collapses," he writes. But after a string of losses, it could be too late: "The amazing -- and, for Clinton, unfortunate -- thing is that her campaign was not in ankle-biter mode until very recently."

The New York Daily News calls it "Hail Mary time": "She must stagger the seemingly unstoppable Obama at the Democratic debate tonight and set him up for a knockdown in the 11 days before the March 4 primaries," Ken Bazinet, Michael Saul, and Michael McAuliff write.

Says Clinton, in a TV interview: "Please. . . . Look at a candidate who is ready, willing and able to do it. Don't give up on this."

The debate should show whether Clinton and her team see real hope of salvaging their campaign, Matthew Dowd writes in his column. "1 -- either they believe the can still salvage the season and make the playoffs, and thus I would see this being reflected in a take-no-prisoners and throw-the-kitchen-sink attacks at Obama in the debates, or 2-- they understand the season is lost, and begin to make nice, and not be perceived as sore losers. And thus end the season so it can be remembered positively by voters and the Democratic party."

"One thing that could have an effect on the debate's outcome is that Obama has a cold. He apologized to the Dallas crowd once for a hoarse voice, and stopped in the middle of his speech to wipe his nose with a handkerchief," R.G. Ratcliffe writes in the Houston Chronicle.

(But yes, he CAN get applause when he blows his nose, per the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick.)

Karl Rove sees Obama, D-Ill., opening himself up to new lines of attack -- if not from Clinton, then surely from McCain down the road a stretch. "Until now, Mr. Obama has been making appeals to the center, saying, for example, that we are not red or blue states, but the United States," Rove writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"But in his Houston speech [Tuesday night], he used the opportunity of 45 (long) minutes on national TV to advocate a distinctly non-centrist, even proudly left-wing, agenda. By doing so, he opened himself to new and damaging contrasts and lines of criticism."

As the Clinton campaign spent another day explaining why Obama's victories were meaningless, Time's Michael Grunwald unpacks the absurdity of the Clinton spin machine. "Spin is about framing a coherent narrative, and Team Hillary's narrative borders on self-parody," Grunwald writes. "But the Orwellian spin and the silly gotchas certainly could reinforce Obama's message that Clinton is mired in the small-minded, zero-sum, it's-all-a-game Washington politics of the past."

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe teed off: "I am amused when the Clinton campaign continues to say, 'Well, it's essentially a tie.' I mean, that's just lunacy."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank traveled with Clinton to the Texas border to chronicle the troublesome signs.

"On Tuesday night, Obama had packed in a capacity crowd of more than 18,000 at the Toyota Center in Houston, home of the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets. But when Clinton emerged to speak at the 6,800-seat Dodge Arena here -- home of a minor-league hockey team -- rows and rows of empty blue seats awaited," Milbank writes.

"For a candidate who has lost 10 contests in a row to Barack Obama and is fast becoming the Mike Huckabee of the Democratic Party, she must have felt tempted to slip across the bridge and into Mexico, a fugitive from a coronation gone awry," he added.

Some of her friends are heading south on her. Big labor is falling into line behind Obama: "Obama picked up the support of the Teamsters on Wednesday, and he is poised to win the endorsement of 'Change to Win' on Thursday, further imperiling Sen. Hillary Clinton's candidacy," ABC's Teddy Davis and Sunlen Miller report.

The Teamsters endorsement came in spite of an 11th-hour appeal from Bill Clinton himself, they report.

The latest FEC numbers provide fresh reasons for Clinton to despair. "Hillary Clinton ended January with $7.6 million in debt -- not including the $5 million personal loan she gave to her campaign," Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel and Jeanne Cummings report.

"In contrast, Democratic rival Barack Obama's campaign's finances continued to be robust. He reported raising nearly $37 million and spending nearly $31 million. His cash balance was $25 million, of which roughly $20 million can be spent on the primary."

A few fun tidbits: "More than $2 million of the red ink is owed to chief consultant and adviser, Mark Penn. But the lengthy laundry list of IOUs also includes unpaid bills ranging from insurance coverage, phone banking, printing and catering at events in Iowa, New Hampshire and California."

Clinton is getting some help from a 527 group -- the American Leadership Project, which is looking to raise $2 million (if not more) to fund its pro-Hillary (and anti-Obama) messaging, per ABC's Jake Tapper.

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, is "poised to push any bit of information that might make Obama look like he's either inauthentic or stealing other people's lines," ABC's Kate Snow reports. "On Wednesday, the Clinton campaign pointed ABC News to another example, which, they say, shows that Obama borrows material."

This time the words were first spoken by John Edwards, in 2003: "I haven't spent most of my life in politics, as most of you know, but I've spent enough time in Washington to know how much we need to change Washington." Obama, in 2007: "I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

And suddenly, Clinton is brimming with pride: "I am proud of the United States of America, and what we stand for, and what we have achieved in history," Clinton said while campaigning in Hidalgo, Texas, ABC's Christine Byun reports.

Similarly proud (now) is Michelle Obama: "So let me tell you something -- I am proud," she said Wednesday in Providence, R.I., per The Boston Globe's Lisa Wangsness.

"I'm proud of this country, and I'm proud of the fact that people are ready to roll up their sleeves and do something phenomenal."

McCain's 9 am ET press conference should drive the day, and he then proceeds with his campaign schedule in Ohio and Michigan on Thursday. Huckabee gets his Alamo visit while in Texas (time to work on those "Saturday Night Live" jokes, governor).

The Democratic debate runs from 8 to 9:30 pm ET , televised on CNN and Univision. Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

And join me for live-blogging during the debate, at ABC's Political Radar.

Also in the news:

Just before McCain was explaining meetings with a certain lobbyist who's become pretty famous overnight, he was trying to soften up Obama for the general election. "Republican front-runner John McCain accused Barack Obama on Wednesday of waffling on a pledge to accept public financing for the fall presidential campaign," David Jackson writes in USA Today.

Obama uses a USA Today op-ed to make his proposal: "I propose a meaningful agreement in good faith that results in real spending limits. The candidates will have to commit to discouraging cheating by their supporters; to refusing fundraising help to outside groups; and to limiting their own parties to legal forms of involvement. And the agreement may have to address the amounts that Senator McCain, the presumptive nominee of his party, will spend for the general election while the Democratic primary contest continues."

The Austin American-Statesman's Ken Herman has an interesting look at Mike Huckabee that's worth a close read in light of The New York Times piece: "McCain, absent a major screw-up, has the nomination sewn up," Herman writes. "Huckabee, who is running a distant second to McCain, is kind of driving the McCainiacs crazy by staying put and reminding folks -- week after week, contest after contest -- that there are Republicans who don't like the man destined for their nomination."

The Boston Globe's Bryan Bender grabs the Honolulu dateline to tell a piece of the Obama story: "Many who knew him during his childhood and have lived here for decades say Hawaii -- highly isolated but also highly diverse -- best explains the origins of Obama's vision of breaking down barriers and fashioning a new majority out of the nation's splintered political landscape," Bender writes.

This story will emerge again if the RNC has anything to do with it: "The Obama campaign has declined to release the names of all the participants [in Obama's foreign-policy discussions], saying that some of them are volunteering their time while serving in jobs at government agencies and nonprofits that don't want to be publicly associated with a partisan political campaign," Eli Lake reports in the New York Sun.

The kicker:

"That wasn't just a bad dream? That really happened?" -- Texas state senator Kirk Watson, after a disastrous MSNBC appearance where he blanked when asked to name an Obama accomplishment.

"Why would you want to associate yourself with defeat, even if it's glorious defeat?" -- Texas state historian Frank de la Teja, on Mike Huckabee's Alamo analogies. Huck is set to visit the site on Thursday.

"Actually, she didn't say the hope-monger part. I made that up." -- Barack Obama, careful about his sources nowadays.

Worth the click -- if you're not sick of the storyline yet: Obama and Deval Patrick, set to the music -- and plagiarism commentary -- of Vanilla Ice.

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