McCain brand remains under microscope

Though he has survived it thus far, The New York Times article could still prove to be an albatross

Though a decorated Vietnam veteran, John McCain once chose to wear his joint McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform as his badge of honor, possibly as much as John Kerry brandished his Bronze Star during the 2004 campaign.

It could now seem like a poor decision to make campaign and governmental ethics such a prominent position after The New York Times recently ran a widely discussed article that raised issues of questionable lobbyist and fundraising tactics last week.

But even before the Times ran that particular story, McCain was already starting to back off his reputation as a reform-minded party rebel, possibly knowing it might alienate his Republican base.

Possibly anticipating another run for President, the Times reported that when the Senate revamped lobbying and ethics rules in 2007, McCain remained on the sidelines. While campaigning, he has also virtually ignored his former stance of railing against the corruption of politics by big business.

Pundits and critics seem to agree that the Times had a real story - McCain potentially slipping through the loopholes of the special interest rules he championed - buried below a poorly chosen lede: A very tepid insinuation that some people suspected a romantic relationship could blossom with a lobbyist close to the issues before the Senate committees on which he serves.

"It was still a substantial piece, but the Times came down on the wrong side," says Nick Ragone, a political analyst and SVP at Ketchum. Ragone says the paper felt outside pressure by other media outlets to lead with the affair. Many, such as The New Republic, he said, had articles ready to run about the Times' internal debate to go with a "really flimsy story with hardly any evidence and no one on the record."

To survive, however, the recently embattled candidate must first, according to Ragone, fire back and let people know that, "although he works with lobbyists - as [does] every other politician in DC - they receive no special treatment." Then, he needs to stay below the fray and not wind up "swift-boated," says John Samples, the Cato Institute director of the Center for Representative Government, referring to the movement that helped derail Kerry's 2004 campaign.

However, as political campaigns turn from gentlemanly conflict to guerrilla warfare - which the Times "Long Run" story inadvertently forecasted last week - the story could still have potential impact on both staunch conservatives, who might prefer McCain have closer ties with big business - as long as he was not involved in marital impropriety - and McCain moderates - who appreciated his reform and expect his adherence to it.

"For the moment, in the big picture, everything depends on the McCain brand name," says Samples. "He might get the conservative base mollified, but if any of these stories actually go to heart - and the brand name [gets] tarnished - he's got a real problem."

"It's early in the day and the Times story isn't going to hurt with most voters," adds Samples. "If stronger evidence of shady influence with the lobbyist comes to light later on in the campaign, it could be fatal."

Few believe the Times set out to intentionally besmirch McCain. After all, the "Gray Lady" endorsed him for President, saying it had "strong disagreements" with all the Republican presidential contenders - and occasionally "shuddered at" McCain's "tactical pander to the right" - but lent the candidate backing for his demonstration to stand on principle."

"The Times is not in the smear business - and nobody believes he isn't a decent guy," Ragone said. "It's like any other news organization, trying to land the juiciest story."

Despite the maelstrom, McCain could still come out of election warfare unscathed - or even in a better position. For McCain, who has difficulties attracting self-identified conservatives, the Times story apparently garnered both sympathy and campaign contributions from conservatives who felt the paper's story was unfair.

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