It is not often that campaign staffers feel good after a day of relentless media focus on the question of whether your boss had an extramarital affair. And yet, behind the veneer of self-confidence, of the political imperative to project a calm upper lip, the campaign’s senior advisers and aides are in a much better place tonight than they were last night.
The campaign responded quickly and deftly to the accusations and provided a model of sorts for how to weather an accusatory, highly provocative front-page, above-the-fold investigative piece in the world’s most influential newspaper.
First, they had facts. Within two hours of the story being published to the Times’s website, McCain’s campaign distributed a 1,200 point-by-point rebuttal of some of the story’s claims. Spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker issued a statement slamming the Times for its “gutter” politics.
Wisely, they deliberately decided to keep McCain from reading the article. That way, when a reporter serving as the pooler for his evening fundraiser threw him a question, he was able to say, quite honestly, that he hadn’t read it yet. The message: nothing to be concerned about. To prevent reporters from claiming that McCain was trying to hide from them, the campaign scheduled a news conference for 9:00 am the next morning -- after the morning shows, on which, incidentally, high-powered McCain surrogates repeatedly denounced the story and the New York Times.
During his press conference, McCain was the picture of solitude. Cindy McCain’s smile wasn’t forced. “No,” he did not have an affair. Never did he “violate the public trust.” He would allow only that he was “disappointed” with the Times. McCain did allow his affect to become the story. That allowed his staff to attack the story with furor. And they did -- in lengthy sessions with McCain’s traveling press corps, in personal conversations with top reporters, in outreach calls and e-mails to bloggers and surrogates and donors.
To be sure, the story was met with fairly widespread condemnation, and the media decided to give McCain the benefit of the doubt. What the story proved -- that some staffers were worried about a lobbyist’s braggadocio -- was not what it implied, and it was very easy for critics to turn widen that wrinkle into a credibility gap.
Republicans worried about McCain’s ability to run a competent general election campaign should be mollified. Facing the worst crisis of his candidacy since…well, July, McCain and his aides weathered the storm.
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