McCain Camp Relieved by Its Reaction to Accusations

In less than 24 hours the McCain campaign traveled the long distance from anger and anxiety to calm and confidence. It went from desperate defense to aggressive offense.

In the assessment of McCain communication director Jill Hazelbaker, The New York Times story suggesting that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had an "improper relationship" with a female lobbyist in 1999 was its first major crisis and she felt it had met the challenge.

Interviews with four McCain senior advisers paint a picture of a staff stunned by the news that the Times article would appear Wednesday night. The McCain campaign has known for months that the Times was preparing such a story, but its publication had been delayed. Several staffers said they had been lulled by the absence of recent inquiries from the newspaper or from other journalists into believing that it would not run.

When McCain aides learned the article would appear in a few hours first in the newspaper's online edition, they were jolted. But one staffer said they had a general plan of action in place in case the article ever did run. It was now activated.

First, top aides to McCain immediately attacked the newspaper in similar language. It was "the New York Times playing the National Enquirer." It was an outrageous "smear" based on unnamed sources. The liberal New York Times was trying to tarnish the conservative presumptive Republican nominee for president. The Times rushed the story to print because the New Republic magazine was about to publish an article about the fight inside the Times over whether to run the article.

Hazelbaker put a written statement within an hour and a half of the story going online.

"It is a shame that The New York Times has lowered its standards to engage in a hit-and-run smear campaign," she said. "John McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists,

Top campaign officials were dispatched to the network morning shows Friday.

McCain lawyer Bill Bennett called the Times story "a hatchet job."

Campaign manager Rick Davis pronounced it "unfair, unjust and inaccurate."

Still, the McCain staffers were aware the crucial factor in the day — and coming days — would be McCain's hastily scheduled news conference in the Toledo, Ohio, hotel where he was staying the night the Times story broke.

"It wasn't do-or-die," Hazelbaker said, "but we knew it was very important."

A decision was made that McCain would stand up and take any and all questions until reporters had no more. It would last however long it lasted.

McCain, accompanied by his wife, Cindy, entered the hotel ballroom a couple of minutes earlier than the scheduled 9 a.m. starting time — unusual by itself. Speaking softly and appearing somewhat nervous, McCain made a brief opening statement and then took questions. He categorically denied each and every allegation the Times article insinuated. No favors for lobbyists. No inappropriate or romantic relationship with Vicky Iseman. No one on his staff had ever urged him to end whatever relationship it was that existed.

He appeared solicitous as if it were all a terrible misunderstanding that he would be happy to set straight if you just let him. His tone was diffident but emphatic. Despite his reputation for being quick to bristle at questions he dislikes, he never lost his cool.

When the questioning ended, McCain seemed a bit surprised, then relieved as if he had expected more.

The campaign followed up with a concentrated attack on the Times. Meanwhile, to make sure the McCain news conference would be the definitive response from the candidate, a press availability in Wayne, Mich., was canceled.

By Thursday afternoon, the mood among McCain staffers had lightened considerably. As McCain toured a Ford Motor plant in Wayne, senior adviser Mark Salter said, "It's behind us."

Senior adviser Charles Black conceded the story would dominate the news into the weekend, but predicted it would fade away soon thereafter barring some new revelations, adding "but I'll be damned if I know what they would be."

The consensus of the four top advisers was that McCain had weathered the storm, at least for now. They had succeeded at changing the story from burgeoning scandal to questions about the methods and motives of the Times.

The plan for the coming days is for McCain to decline to answer further questions, pointing to the Toledo news conference as having been comprehensive and exhaustive. The message: "I answered every question asked of me. It's time to resume my campaign."

By all accounts, the McCain campaign is quite satisfied how the first 24 hours went. Even the timing of the story, if it had to run, was propitious. If the same story had broken during the early primaries, the damage could have been fatal to McCain's presidential quest. Coming out in February means, his campaign staff hopes, by the fall it will all be a dim memory.