Republican presidential hopeful John McCain found himself on the defensive Thursday, after a New York Times story detailing some of his ties to lobbyists.
The Times spotlighted McCain's friendship a decade ago with a female lobbyist. The newspaper says some staffers on McCain's presidential campaign in 2000 were so worried about a possible scandal, they took steps to keep the two apart.
Both McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, have denied any romantic relationship. And McCain says he never gave Iseman's clients special treatment. It's unusual scrutiny for the Arizona senator, who has built his reputation as a squeaky-clean reformer.
Instead of focusing on a campaign fundraiser Thursday in Ohio, and touring a Ford Assembly plant, the Republican front-runner began his morning in front of a battery of TV cameras, answering questions about his relationship with Iseman, who is 31 years his junior.
"Friends. Seen her on occasions, particularly at receptions and fundraisers and appearances before the (Senate Commerce) Committee," McCain said.
The Times story, which appeared Wednesday on the newspaper's Web site and the front page Thursday morning, quotes unnamed sources from McCain's 2000 campaign. They say they told staffers to keep the woman away from the senator, and confronted McCain himself about the possible appearance of scandal.
McCain said Thursday that he never got warnings like that.
"I don't know if it happened at their level. It certainly didn't happen to me," he said.
As Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain says he did make decisions that may have benefited Iseman's clients. The Times notes he also took actions that worked against them. McCain says that in every case, he did what he thought was best for the public.
"At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust nor make a decision which, in any way, would not be in the public interest and would favor anyone or any organization," he said.
McCain is fiercely protective of his honor and integrity. In the late 1980s, he was caught up in the "Keating Five" scandal. He'd met with savings-and-loan regulators on behalf of a friend and campaign contributor, Charles Keating, who later went to prison. Although the Senate Ethics Committee determined McCain was guilty of nothing worse than "poor judgment," he called the scandal the worst experience of his life — even worse than being held captive in a North Vietnamese prison.
Since then, McCain has been a crusader for ethics in politics.
"Senator McCain is a leader in the Senate on ethics issues and campaign finance reform," said Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of the watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. "That said, when you are a leader on ethics and when you hold yourself up as a prime example of an ethical member of Congress, you have to be particularly careful, because there are going to be people looking at you that much more closely."
Sloan says it's possible McCain is so confident of his own ethical compass that he unwittingly strays into territory that may appear suspect.
"When he looks in the mirror and just views himself as an ethical man, he is not likely to see conduct that others might view as questionable. He may think he's beyond questioning on those kinds of issues, but of course, now that he's a presidential candidate, those things will be looked at that much more closely and no one is above scrutiny on those kinds of issues," she said.
Sloan points to McCain's involvement with the Reform Institute. He helped set up the nonprofit seven years ago to control corporate money in politics but it was actually funded by some of the corporations with business before McCain's committee. He later resigned from the Institute's board.
The Times story appeared after McCain had the Republican presidential nomination effectively sewn up, despite some lingering doubts in the party's right wing. Some activists say it may actually rally reluctant conservatives to McCain's side.
"He deserves the benefit of the doubt, because there's no evidence against him," said conservative activist Bay Buchanan. "We take the side of John McCain. He's denied it. He says it's not true. The New York Times should never have run this story, period."
Buchanan, who was an adviser to Mitt Romney's campaign, asked if the Times really stands behind the story, which was in the works for months, why didn't it run earlier, when it might have made a difference in the Republican contest.