Did the NYT Screw Romney Out of the Nomination?

The New York Times has a story on A1 today implying that Arizona Sen. John McCain had an affair with a female lobbyist during the 2000 campaign. The story also says “that McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s clients.”

McCain, who has railed against special interest groups and pushed for ethics reform, denied that a romantic relationship took place, as did Vicki Iseman, the lobbyist in question.

But there’s a far more interesting wrinkle here: This past December, weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, The Drudge Report posted a story. The thrust? The Times was prepared to say McCain had given special favor to a lobbyist. According to Drudge, McCain hired a lawyer and “pleaded” with the Times editor not to run the piece. And it didn’t — until now. Until after McCain had become the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination.

We’ve been huge critics of Mitt Romney here at Boston Daily, but if he screamed bloody murder right now, we wouldn’t argue.

First, some key points from the Times story:

Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

When news organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s client, the former campaign associates said, some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement.

Tying McCain to a lobbyist before Iowa, romantic relationship or not, wouldn’t have been good press for him while he was fighting to remain viable. In the late ’80s, he was nearly undone by the Keating Savings and Loan scandal, and he’s had to work hard to remake his image since then. The Times piece says as much, landing its most damaging blows toward the end:

A champion of deregulation, Mr. McCain wrote letters in 1998 and 1999 to the Federal Communications Commissionurging it to uphold marketing agreements allowing a television company to control two stations in the same city, a crucial issue for Glencairn Ltd., one of Ms. Iseman’s clients. He introduced a bill to create tax incentives for minority ownership of stations; Ms. Iseman represented several businesses seeking such a program. And he twice tried to advance legislation that would permit a company to control television stations in overlapping markets, an important issue for Paxson [Communications].

In late 1999, Ms. Iseman asked Mr. McCain’s staff to send a letter to the commission to help Paxson, now Ion Media Networks, on another matter. Mr. Paxson was impatient for F.C.C. approval of a television deal, and Ms. Iseman acknowledged in an e-mail message to The Times that she had sent to Mr. McCain’s staff information for drafting a letter urging a swift decision.

Mr. McCain complied. He sent two letters to the commission, drawing a rare rebuke for interference from its chairman. In an embarrassing turn for the campaign, news reports invoked the Keating scandal, once again raising questions about intervening for a patron.

The question, at least if you’re Mitt Romney, is why the hell didn’t the Times run it back in December, before Iowa? If it turns out the paper allowed McCain to talk it into holding the piece, expect journalists and politicians alike to lose their minds (especially since the Times endorsed McCain). Remember, at that point, McCain wasn’t the front-runner. He was just a guy building momentum in New Hampshire, hoping former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee could hold off Romney in Iowa, thereby making it a race. And that’s exactly what Huckabee did.

But what if things had gone differently? What if the Times had run its story? For the next few weeks, every Romney supporter will tell you that would have made it an entirely different race. They’ll say something along these lines: If McCain was fighting off these allegations, Romney would have won New Hampshire, and McCain would have been cooked. Romney never would have had to suspend his campaign. Nor would he have linked arms with McCain on Valentine’s Day and thrown his support behind a man he openly loathed during the primary.

And you know what? Sounds like a damn good argument.

Here’s a final stumper: If you suspend your campaign, and then you endorse your rival, and then your rival is accused of being a philanderer and a crook, can you take it all back? Can you reclaim your delegates and start anew?

Somewhere, I bet Romney is wondering the same thing.

UPDATE: The New Republic is set to run a piece about the NYT’s “foot-dragging” on the McCain story, which may have led to the paper finally publishing the saga on its web site last night.

UPDATE II: We’re not the only ones pondering how this story might have changed the race had it run before New Hampshire. As predicted, Romney’s supporters are going crazy right now. Here’s what Bay Buchanan, a former Romney advisor, told CNN:

“Oh, there’s no question it would have impacted [the race]. I think John McCain would not have won this primary if there’s any evidence whatsoever that surfaces that these stories are true… McCain’s lawyers went into the New York Times and said do not touch this story. Do not move on this story. And there’s no question this was beneficial to McCain to hold the story. No question. His nomination was very much threatened by this story if it broke too early. So what they did was hurt the Republican Party by not allowing this to be aired properly at the time they received this information.”