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Is McCain's Reputation at Issue?

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The leading Republican candidate got a reminder yesterday that he may get some help even from conservatives who don't necessarily like him. Some top conservative talk radio hosts are no fans of John McCain. But when the New York Times questioned McCain's past ties to lobbyists, the radio hosts knew the enemy they'd prefer to attack. Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham went after the Times. The candidate himself says he's disappointed by the article but he wants to put it behind him. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Whatever was really going on, or not going on, a decade ago between John McCain and telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman, it didn't look right. According to the New York Times and a subsequent story in the Washington Post, that's why McCain advisor John Weaver met with Iseman in 1999 and urged her to keep her to keep her distance.

The newspapers also quote unnamed sources from McCain's 2000 presidential campaign who say they confronted the Senator himself about what looked like an improper relationship. At a news conference in Ohio yesterday, McCain said Iseman was nothing more than a friend and that he never gave her lobbying clients any special treatment.

Senator JOHN McCAIN, (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): As chairman of the commerce committee there were hundreds of issues, including many telecommunications issues that came before the committee. I had to make decisions on those issues and I made those decisions. Sometimes they were agreed with, sometimes they were not. Any observer will attest to the fact that I made those decisions on the basis of what I thought was in the best interests of the American citizen.

HORSLEY: McCain says he didn't have a romantic relationship with Iseman and he denied being confronted by his staff about their friendship. McCain's wife, Cindy, also rose to her husband's defense.

Ms. CINDY McCAIN: 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.

HORSLEY: Executive editor Bill Keller says the New York Times isn't suggesting there was any quid pro quo between McCain and Iseman or other lobbyists mentioned in the article. Rather, he says the point of the story was McCain's apparent inability to see how his behavior might look to others. Keller says that was especially striking for a lawmaker who was scalded years ago by his relatively minor role in the Keating Five scandal.

McCain had attended meetings with savings and loan regulators investigating his friend and campaign contributor Charles Keating, who later went to prison. The Senate Ethics Committee found McCain guilty of nothing worse than poor judgment, but Keller says McCain was deeply affected.

Mr. BILL KELLER, (Executive Editor, New York Times): If you read his books it was clearly just a humiliating event for him. And he subsequently built his political life on themes of redemption, reform, and became the scourge of lobbyists, the champion of campaign finance reform and so on, yet according to some of the people who know him best, he can be surprisingly careless about his reputation.

HORSLEY: After addressing the article in the morning, McCain uncharacteristically kept his distance from reporters and cancelled a planned news conference later in the day. He did hold a pair of fundraisers yesterday, but McCain faces a potentially major challenge on that front as well.

Just after his Super Tuesday wins earlier this month, campaign contributions were pouring in and McCain decided to opt out of the federal matching funds program. That would allow him to spend as much money as he can raise between now and the GOP convention. This week though, the chairman of the Federal Election Commission suggested McCain might not be allowed to opt out because he may have relied on the promise of federal funds to secure a bank loan.

McCain, the champion of campaign finance reform, says he can win this argument.

Sen. McCAIN: We think it's perfectly legal. We have - one of our advisors is a former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission and we are confident that it is an appropriate thing to do.

HORSLEY: If McCain is not allowed to opt out, he'll find himself bumping up against spending limits almost immediately. But the campaign doesn't seem worried by that. Yesterday, campaign manager Rick Davis lashed out at both pieces of bad news in a single email, urging supporters to, quote, "fight back against the New York Times" by making an immediate contribution.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can read an interview with New York Times executive editor Bill Keller by going to our Web site, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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