How to Handle a Scandal

So, it's finally a campaign. There's a sex scandal, or something close to one.

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, reportedly had a relationship in 1999 with a lobbyist with whom he traveled, attended events and wrote letters to federal regulators on behalf of her telecom clients, reported The New York Times.

McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, may also have been involved romantically, a charge the paper hints at through interviews with anonymous advisers who claim to have told Iseman to stop seeing the senator. Both Iseman and McCain have denied a sexual relationship.

This past year has seen a series of political sex scandals at all levels of government, from Detroit's Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig.


But as much as Americans have come to be less than surprised at politicians' philandering, a scandal during a presidential campaign can carry great risk for a candidate -- especially one like McCain, who has made personal ethics an integral part of his political life.

How quickly and honestly the candidate responds to charges of a scandal -- sexual or otherwise -- is key to keeping him viable, political strategists told

It remains to be seen whether this will pan out into a full-fledged sex scandal, but the allegations of favoritism alone require McCain to respond, said Matthew Dowd, an ABC News consultant and a strategist for President Bush's 2004 campaign.

"The facts will determine whether this is a sex scandal. But questions are going to remain about this relationship and whether it influenced McCain to act unethically in his political -- if not personal -- life," Dowd said.

McCain's camp needs to get ahead of the story, gather the facts and get them out to the public before the media can, Dowd said.

"The best thing they can do is determine all the facts, get everything out there and make this into a one- or two-day story. If they have the facts, they can say, 'The paper's reporting was wrong, but here is the real truth.' They need to do it as quickly as possible. They can't wait a week or hide the candidate," he said.

That's just what McCain did Thursday. On the trail in Toledo, Ohio, McCain, with wife Cindy by his side, vehemently denied the allegations levied by the Times.

"I'm very disappointed in the article. It's not true," McCain said during a press conference.

He called Iseman a "friend" and described traveling in her client's corporate jet as an "accepted practice."

''I will focus my attention in this campaign on the big issues and on the challenges that face this country,'' he said.

Lanny Davis, who served as an advisor in the Clinton White House when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, praised McCain's response.

"My advice to Clinton once the story had come out was to get the whole truth out as quickly as possible. Only he knew when that best time would be. People were willing to forgive Clinton for what he did in his personal life because they understood that he performed well in his public and political life," said Davis, a lawyer and author of "Truth To Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself: Notes from My White House Education."

Davis believes there is little to support the Times' insinuation that McCain and Iseman had a romantic relationship and said he has firsthand knowledge -- as a lobbyist, who together with Iseman, asked McCain to write a letter to the FCC about selling a public television station -- that no political favors were done by the senator.

"Beyond the insinuations of a personal relationship the real elephant in the room is whether there was a quid pro quo<\i>. In his speech McCain quickly made the distinction between a friendship he had with Iseman and his professional relationship. He was quick to say, 'It doesn't matter if I'm friends with someone because I am always able to make up my own mind.'"

Getting back on the trail, looking presidential and encouraging his wife to be seen and heard are standard and necessary ways to handle a scandal, said Cathy Allen, a Democratic political strategist based in Seattle.

"This is the classic, textbook response," Allen said.

"Within moments he was out in front of the camera. On the trail he has his wife standing beside him. He made himself immediately available and was answering questions. The trick is, and he did this, is restating the negative in his own terms. He didn't wimp out or make the facts fuzzy, he just changed the subject," she said.

After her husband spoke at the press conference in Toledo, Cindy McCain said, "My children and I not only trust my husband but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America."

McCain is, of course, not the first candidate to be haunted by the specter of a sex scandal. As a candidate, former President Bill Clinton was dogged by rumors of indiscretions and was able to successfully deny them. He even defended himself in an impeachment trial against charges he'd lied about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.

Sen. Gary Hart, however, was not so lucky. While running for the Democratic nomination in 1998 he challenged the media to "follow me around." Soon after, he was found frolicking on a boat with actress-model Donna Rice.

The public's perception of a candidate before allegations surface often determines whether he'll weather the storm of a scandal, Dowd said.

"The fallout of a scandal is directly related to the public's preconceptions about that person to begin with. No one ever thought Bill Clinton was an altar boy, so he was given a pass. It is different from say, some preacher, who is held up as an ethical barometer and paragon of virtue and gets caught with his pants down," he said.

It is no longer the sex that upsets people when it comes to political scandals -- it is the lying and the hypocrisy, Allen said.

"It's not the act that people care about. It is the deception and mistrust. People care about someone who says he is something that he is not. They care about lying," she said.

"It is never just about the sex."