Conservative media outlets lambasted the New York Times today for front-page story reporting Sen. John McCain had what aides believed was a romantic relationship with a lobbyist in 1999.
Conservative talk radio hosts, who for weeks have railed against the maverick senator's candidacy arguing he isn't conservative enough, today choose to offer tepid support for the presumptive Republican nominee by dismissing the New York Times story.
There is nothing in it here that you can say is true," said conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh on his radio show Thursday afternoon of the story.
"It is beyond disgraceful," said Sean Hannity on his radio show Thursday afternoon. "There's not throughout this entire article, a shred of evidence to corroborate or back up what the lead of this entire story is."
Many conservative media outlets had McCain defenders on their shows. On Hannity's radio show, Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has endorsed McCain, said the Times "puked up a nine-year-old rumor and put it on the front page of the New York Times with no corroboration, no named sources."
McCain's 'Cozy' Media Relationship
But influential conservative radio hosts also slapped McCain today for what they called a "cozy" relationship with the mainstream press.
"If you let the media make you, you are subjecting yourself to being able to let the media destroy you," Limbaugh said.
"The important question for John McCain today is: is he going to learn the right lesson from this?" Limbaugh said. "The lesson is liberals are to be defeated.You cannot reach across the aisle. You cannot welcome their media members on your bus and get all cozy with them and expect eternal love from them."
Laura Ingraham, a conservative radio host who had backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination, also criticized McCain's relationship with the mainstream media — even criticizing the senator for holding a press conference with the mainstream media today to address the New York Times story.
"I ask the McCain campaign this question: Do you need talk radio now?" she asked on her show this morning. "Do you think that talk radio's important to set the record straight, or do you think a press conference, where the media is shouting question after question at you — do you think that's going to put an end to all this?"
But after her dig at the Arizona senator, Ingraham lambasted the New York Times, accusing the paper of waiting to publish the story to do the most harm to McCain and the GOP.
"You wait until it's pretty much beyond a doubt that he's going to be the Republican nominee, and then you let it drop," she said, "drop some acid in the pool, contaminate the whole pool. That's what the New York Times thinks."
Limbaugh also suggested the New York Times endorsed McCain in January just to tear him down a month later.
"This paper endorsed McCain, sat on the story and now puts it out just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination," Limbaugh said.
Conservative 'Badge of Honor'
The critical New York Times story was published at a time when the Arizona senator is urging GOP conservatives with reservations about his record to coalesce around him as the Republican nominee.
Many conservatives believe McCain's record is not conservative enough, and point to his willingness to work with Democrats on legislation, his initial opposition to President Bush's tax cuts, his opposition to a gay marriage ban, and the failed immigration reform legislation.
In a fundraising pitch sent to Republicans today, McCain's campaign said they needed help to "counteract the liberal establishment."
"The New York Times -- the newspaper that gave MoveOn.org a sweetheart deal to run advertisements attacking General Petraeus -- has shown once again that it cannot exercise good journalistic judgment when it comes to dealing with a conservative Republican," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis wrote in an emailed fundraising letter sent today.
"We need your help to counteract the liberal establishment and fight back against the New York Times by making an immediate contribution today," read the e-mail.
The Republican National Committee sent a similar fundraising email out today, citing the "shameless liberal media."
"Republicans must fight back against the mainstream media's clear liberal bias -- and we need your help to do it," read the email.
Many argue a critical story in the New York Times will not damage McCain's effort to woo conservatives.
"I don't think that the conservatives look to the New York Times as their primary source of credible news," said Rick Tyler, a campaign consultant who has worked as a spokesperson for former Speaker Newt Gingrich.
On Hannity's radio show Thursday afternoon Gingrich said the New York Times has no credibility among conservatives.
"It's hard for anyone to see them as anything but a left-wing, totally biased organization," Gingrich said.
The Christian Broadcasting Network's Web site, CBN.org, called the New York Times story "a hit job."
"In the conservative world, if the New York Times does a 'hit job' on you then you wear that as a conservative badge of honor. This story could actually HELP John McCain," Brody wrote in another blog today.
Conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck this morning argued the story could even bolster conservative support for McCain.
"The New York Times is doing what John McCain couldn't do: rally support for John McCain," Beck said on his radio show this morning.
Beck said the Times should have published the story when he said they first had it, in December, "when we still had decent candidates to pick from."
"We could have chosen those guys instead," Beck said, citing Romney, former Sen. Fred Thompson and former Mayor Rudy Guiliani.
Conservatives React to Firestorm
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has not dropped out of the Republican race even as McCain has secured nearly enough delegates to clinch the nomination, today defended McCain. After campaigning many times on the same stage as McCain, Huckabee said he knows McCain to be a man of great integrity.
Huckabee will meet tomorrow with James Dobson, founder of the influential Christian conservative group Focus on the Family, who today refused to comment on the McCain controversy. Dobson has endorsed Huckabee for the GOP nomination.
The media firestorm may be giving pause to the remnants of the Romney campaign. Romney abandoned his bid for the GOP nomination this month after McCain won a sweep of Super Tuesday states. Romney later endorsed the Arizona senator.
This morning, while no one would allow his or her name to be published, several former advisers lamented the timing of the story.
"If this piece had run before New Hampshire, McCain would have lost. If it had run before Florida, he would have lost," suggested a former Romney campaign adviser, reported ABC News' John Berman.
Tony Beam, host of a Christian evangelical radio station in South Carolina, said while most of the listeners don't support McCain, many of them directed anger toward the New York Times.
"Most of my listeners don't like John McCain to start with, they were hoping for someone with more solid conservative credentials," Beam said. "But the callers I took said they thought the New York Times had blown this out of proportion."
ABC News' John Berman, Kevin Chupka, Jake Tapper, Rick Klein, Jonathan Greenberger, Teddy Davis, Courtney Cohen, Matt Stuart, Mosheh Gains, Lindsey Hamilton contributed to this report.