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McCain denies allegations over lobbyist

WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain strongly denied allegations Thursday that he was warned during his first White House campaign in 2000 to avoid meetings with a female telecommunications lobbyist who allegedly claimed to have undue access to the senator and his aides.

McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, denied any improper relationship with the woman, Vicki Iseman, whom he called a friend.

He criticized a New York Times story suggesting that he aided Iseman by helping her clients and said is was “not true.”

Cindy McCain, the candidate’s wife, stood beside him at the news conference at a hotel in Toledo, Ohio. Asked to comment, she called her husband a “man of great character” who would not do anything to “disappoint the people of America.”

McCain’s aides and supporters portrayed the controversy as a political hit job designed to sully the four-term Arizona senator and war hero as he struggles to unite the Republican Party. Polls show that many conservative and evangelical voters have yet to embrace him.

By midafternoon, McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, issued a fundraising solicitation that sought to tap public resentment against the media. The letter denounced a “sleazy smear attack from a liberal newspaper against the conservative Republican front-runner” and pleaded for contributions to “counteract the liberal establishment.”

McCain has led the effort in Congress to end campaign finance abuses and improper influence of lobbyists and special interests. Any indication that he had acted imprudently, especially during the years he was chairman of the Senate Commerce committee, undermines a key plank of his White House campaign.

The case, however, also could benefit McCain if voters conclude that he and his family were unfairly victimized.

In a telephone interview, John Weaver, one of McCain’s top aides in the last campaign, said he had asked Iseman to meet him at a cafe in Union Station, the main train depot in Washington, in late 1999.

“It lasted only a few minutes, maybe five or six minutes,” he said. “In the course of that, I informed her that her comments that she had strong ties to (Commerce) committee staff, to his personal staff and to Sen. McCain were untrue and harmful and it had to stop.”

Iseman, he said, was “telling people that she had close ties, that she could get things done. My position as top campaign person was this was harmful to the campaign. It was inaccurate. … Most lobbyists are guilty of bragging. But it was constant. We kept hearing about it.”

Asked Iseman’s response to his complaint, Weaver replied, “She got up and left. That’s why the meeting was so short.”

Weaver said he did not inform McCain about the meeting, however. His statement thus did not contradict McCain’s denial that he was warned to avoid Iseman.

Iseman did not respond to phone call and e-mail requests for comment Thursday. She is a partner at Alcalde and Fay, a lobbying company in Washington, and represents telecommunications corporations and other clients before the House and Senate commerce committees, according to the firm’s Web site.

In the news conference, McCain said he had seen Iseman “on occasions, particularly at receptions and fundraisers and appearances before the committee. … I consider her a friend.”

The New York Times and the Washington Post reported in stories posted Wednesday night on their Web sites and published Thursday that unnamed former associates of McCain said they repeatedly had warned him to avoid Iseman. No one publicly emerged Thursday to confirm those accounts, and more than a dozen current and former senior McCain aides sharply challenged those claims.

Mark Salter, one of McCain’s closest aides, said in e-mail that no one sought to bar Iseman from McCain’s office, that senior staff did not discuss her as a possible problem and that she continued to lobby McCain and his staff after 2000.

Mike Murphy, who was a senior strategist to McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, said he “knew just about everything” that happened at that time and was unaware of any internal discussions about Iseman. He summed up what he knew about her during that period in one word: “Zilch.”