McCain Drudge

How do you cover the back-and-forth over a story that hasn't come out?

That was the question political journalists were trying to answer yesterday, thanks to a story on the Drudge Report suggesting that the New York Times was investigating Sen. John McCain for alleged legislative favoritism.

The Drudge story did not get into the details of what might be in the Times' as-yet-unpublished report, leaving political reporters scratching their heads over its potential significance. It did suggest that McCain was lobbying the Times not to publish the story, which allegedly "involves a woman lobbyist who may have helped to write key telecom legislation."

The CBSNews.com political unit, of which I am a part, would have simply monitored the story if it had begun and ended with Drudge. But McCain decided to publicly comment on the report, denying that the allegations and saying he had "never done any favors for anybody — lobbyist or special interest group." His campaign communications director suggested the story was part of a "smear campaign." Washington lawyer Bob Bennett, who said McCain had hired him to address the allegations, called the situation an "outrage."

And suddenly a story that might have passed more-or-less unnoticed in mainstream media – at least until the Times report came out – became a legitimate subject.

Numerous news outlets, including the Washington Post and USA Today, covered McCain's comments, and I wrote a post about it for one of our political blogs, Horserace.

It's difficult to know why McCain decided to address the Drudge piece, when he easily could have declined to comment and taken little heat for doing so. (The Times wasn't talking.) His advisors initially would not discuss it, according to the Post, "fearing that would open the door for news organizations to write about what his advisers regard as a non-story."

If McCain has become convinced that the Times story is going to come out eventually, he may have been trying to get out in front of it. Or he may simply have become frustrated over a story that he feels is bogus. The report comes at a difficult time for McCain – just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, with his campaign showing the kind of momentum that has pundits speculating that he could be the last Republican standing. Like Mike Huckabee before him (addressing the Wayne DuMond case), he complained about the timing of the negative report, surfacing as it did just as his campaign appeared to be on the upswing.

McCain has always generated sympathy from reporters for the way he was treated in South Carolina in 2000, when false rumors spread that he fathered an illegitimate black baby. McCain and Bennett, his lawyer, tied that experience to this one – which, considering the circumstances, is something of a stretch. But if McCain feels he may have the Republican nomination stolen from him over this story, it's understandable that he's making the connection.

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