Has the Times 'Awoken a Sleeping Giant' with the McCain Story?

Having spent five-and-a-half years in the Hanoi Hilton, John McCain knows a thing or two about being a victim. But playing the victim for political gain? That's something the steely senator has always shied away from, and rightfully so.

Until now.

It may be his only option. After more than two months of Beltway buzz, The New York Times last night published an article aimed at the heart of McCain's appeal--his integrity, both personal and public--that reported on worries among aides eight years ago that the presumptive Republican nominee was conducting a "romantic" relationship with a female lobbyist while he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.  

McCain quickly denied the allegations, of course. But seeking to rally conservatives--who have been reluctant to support the maverick senator--his campaign immediately pivoted to declare war on the Gray Lady itself. "It is a shame that The New York Times has lowered its standards to engage in a hit-and-run smear campaign," said communications director Jill Hazelbaker in a statement released shortly after the Times story appeared online. On TV, McCain surrogates like Mark McKinnon and Mark Salterhave spent the morning repeating that "the largest liberal newspaper in America [is] smearing the new conservative Republican nominee" and dropping talking points like "innuendo," "gossip," "blind quotes," "Jayson Blair," "Judith Miller" and even--gasp!--the "National Enquirer." (Seriously. I've heard or read the tabloid's name at least five times already.) The goal: make the case that the behavior of the Times--not the senator--should be the issue and unite McCain with the right wing against a common enemy.

Is it working? So far, so good. Longtime McCain antagonist Rush Limbaugh immediately accusedthe "drive-by media" of "trying to take [McCain] out." "The story is not the story," Limbaugh wrote in an email to the Politico. "The media picked the GOP's candidate, the NYT endorsed him while they sat on this story, and is now, with utter predictability, trying to destroy him." Laura Ingraham--like Limbaugh, an influential conservative radio host--also implied that the Times' motives were sinister. "You wait until it's pretty much beyond a doubt that he's going to be the Republican nominee, and then you let it drop," she said this morning. "Drop some acid in the pool, contaminate the whole pool. That's what The New York Times thinks." David Brody of CBN.com, the website of the Christian broadcasting network, told his massive conservative audience that a Times "hit job" is a "badge of honor." And Kathryn Jean Lopez at the National Review's Corner blogsays she's received a flood of emails from angry conservatives. "I'm the typical conservative who has not been happy with the McCain ascendancy, but the NYTimes has accomplished what Tojo did with Pearl Harbor," wrote one. "They have awoken a sleeping giant.  We have been reminded who the real enemy is and it is not Senator McCain.  I'm ordering my bumper sticker today." Limbaugh, Ingraham and their ilk aren't so much embracing McCain as jumping at another opportunity to bash the liberal media. (Limbaugh, in fact, joked that McCain's "base" has finally bitten him in the butt.) But the sound and fury are sufficient for now.

That said, I wouldn't bet on the whole "McCain finally cements his conservative support" storyline just yet--or assume that it's the article's most important aftershock. Right now, the media maelstrom is focusing mainly on the journalistic ethics of the Times story, and that redounds to McCain's benefit--especially among voters who already support McCain. But it's only because there's nothing else to report. Yet, that is. Times editor Bill Keller says he's confident in the "substance" of the story; McCain says it's utterly false. A showdown seems inevitable. I'm waiting for the Times (or other news outlets) to put a few more cards on the table before I conclude that McCain has emerged from this scuffle stronger than before, or even unscathed. Conservatives may continue to cry foul. But I get the sense that if any new info emerges, voters positioned to actually swing the election for McCain--independents, centrist Democrats--won't be as eager as Limbaugh to attack "the drive-by media." Their fury will be focused elsewhere.

And McCain won't just be playing the victim anymore.