The Filter: 2.21.08 ... McCain Shocker (or 'Smear') Edition

A round up of this morning's must-read stories.

(Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn W. Thompson, David D. Kirkpatrick and Stephen Labaton, New York Times)

Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers.A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. 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... Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

(Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Michael D. Shear, Washington Post)

Aides to Sen. John McCain confronted a telecommunications lobbyist in late 1999 and asked her to distance herself from the senator during the presidential campaign he was about to launch, according to one of McCain's longest-serving political strategists. John Weaver, who was McCain's closest confidant until leaving his current campaign last year, said he met with Vicki Iseman at the Center Cafe at Union Station and urged her to stay away from McCain. Association with a lobbyist would undermine his image as an opponent of special interests, aides had concluded. Members of the senator's small circle of advisers also confronted McCain directly, according to sources, warning him that his continued ties to a lobbyist who had business before the powerful commerce committee he chaired threatened to derail his presidential ambitions.

(Jonathan Martin and Michael Calderone, Politico)

John McCain’s campaign promised to “go to war” against the New York Times Wednesday night after the newspaper posted its long-awaited story on McCain's alleged relationship with a telecom lobbyist. Both McCain and the woman in question denied having a romantic relationship... The McCain campaign is using a two-pronged attack to push back against the story. First, they’ll argue it was a thinly sourced piece of innuendo journalism. But McCain aides will also strike at the source, using the Times’ liberal reputation as a means of self-defense to draw sympathy from the GOP’s conservative base.

(Adam Nagourney, New York Times)

Some — led by Mark Penn, her chief strategist — have been pushing Mrs. Clinton to draw sharper and deeper contrasts with Mr. Obama, arguing that she has no other option, campaign officials said. Others, particularly Mandy Grunwald, her media adviser, have pushed for a less aggressive approach, arguing that attacks would not help Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in an environment in which she is increasingly appearing to struggle, aides said. This latest division within the campaign reflects intense frustration among Mrs. Clinton’s advisers as they look for ways to turn around their campaign against Mr. Obama, an opponent whose appeal and skills as a candidate caught them by surprise. So far, her own positive message has been outshone by his, and every line of attack on him has fallen short, fizzled or backfired.

(Chuck Todd, MSNBC)

There's no dispute anymore. Sen. Barack Obama is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination and he's one win away from putting this race to bed. A victory in either Ohio or Texas will probably drive Sen. Hillary Clinton out of the race. Victories for Obama in both states will definitely end it. Obama's trajectory is really stunning right now. He's 10-0 since Super Tuesday, and remarkably, his smallest margin of victory came Tuesday night in Wisconsin. That's right, Obama's 17 point blowout of Clinton in the Badger State was his poorest showing since Super Tuesday. He's gone from a narrow pledged delegate lead (and overall delegate deficit) on Feb. 6 to a nearly insurmountable 150+ pledged delegate lead. When you factor in superdelegates, he's still ahead by 80. In fact, expect Obama's superdelegate deficit to Clinton to close very quickly over the next 13 days. Right now, he's trailing her by approximately 75 superdelegates. My guess is he'll pick up a net of 20 superdelegates before March 4. That's based on more than a hunch but I'll leave it at that.

(Howard Fineman, Newsweek)

By Wednesday morning it was clear that the campaign's leading strategists are turning toward Ohio and Texas with a united and combative front. Obama, they say, isn't prepared to be commander in chief. He is a dangerously unexamined speechmaker with no substantive accomplishments who is using right-wing tactics to go after Hillary's health-care plan. Oh, by the way, he is in cahoots with a sleazy, indicted slum lord (Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who is in jail pending a trial on fraud charges; Rezko has pleaded not guilty). The Clintonites will play an attack-and-wait game, hoping that Obama somehow collapses.

MORE: As Crucial Test Looms, Clinton Hits Harder (Washington Post)

(Karl Rove, Wall Street Journal)

Until now, Mr. Obama has been making appeals to the center, saying, for example, that we are not red or blue states, but the United States. But in his Houston speech, he used the opportunity of 45 (long) minutes on national TV to advocate a distinctly non-centrist, even proudly left-wing, agenda. By doing so, he opened himself to new and damaging contrasts and lines of criticism. Mr. McCain can now question Mr. Obama's promise to change Washington by working across party lines. Mr. Obama hasn't worked across party lines since coming to town. Was he a member of the "Gang of 14" that tried to find common ground between the parties on judicial nominations? Was Mr. Obama part of the bipartisan leadership that tackled other thorny issues like energy, immigration or terrorist surveillance legislation? No. Mr. Obama has been one of the most dependably partisan votes in the Senate.

(Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times)

Unwittingly, Michelle Obama became the story again this week, telling an audience in Wisconsin on Monday that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." ... While Clinton's husband, the former president, has been in hot water regularly for his verbal jabs at Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, whose tongue can be as barbed as Bill Clinton's, has received less scrutiny. With her husband's increasing success, that has changed. And with so much at stake, even minor gaffes are being blown into full-fledged campaign issues.