FEC Warns McCain on Campaign Spending

By Matthew Mosk and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 22, 2008

The nation's top federal election official told Sen. John McCain yesterday that he cannot immediately withdraw from the presidential public financing system as he had requested, a decision that threatens to dramatically restrict his spending until the general election campaign begins in the fall.

The prospect of being financially hamstrung by the very fundraising system he helped create is the latest in a series of bitter challenges for the presumed GOP nominee, who still faces a fractured conservative coalition as he assumes the mantle of party leadership.

Yesterday, McCain blasted the New York Times for an article that alleged that he had an inappropriate, romantic relationship with a female lobbyist eight years ago. With his wife, Cindy, standing next to him at a Toledo campaign stop, he called the report "untrue" and assailed the newspaper, saying it was waging a "smear campaign" against him.

McCain's aides went on the offensive, blaming the Times. "Obviously, we were very angry," said senior adviser Steve Schmidt, speaking to reporters as McCain flew to Michigan from Ohio. "When we read the story, my initial reaction was that it was something you would see in the National Enquirer, not the New York Times."

Cindy McCain told reporters that she trusts her husband, saying that he "would never do anything to . . . disappoint our family" or the American people. "He's a man of great character."

John McCain disputed almost every part of the Times article, saying that he did not have a romantic affair with lobbyist Vicki Iseman and that he had never done inappropriate favors for her or other lobbyists. He denied the part of the story, also reported in The Washington Post, that his staffers had confronted him about his ties to Iseman.

McCain said that if staffers had had such concerns, "they did not communicate them to me." He noted that as many as 150 people worked on his staff at the time and said he had no idea who could have spoken to the newspapers.

One of those former staffers, John Weaver, was quoted on the record in both papers as saying he had a confrontation with Iseman about her claims of closeness to McCain. But McCain said he did not know of the conversation until he read about it.

Weaver quit McCain's campaign last year when it appeared to be on the verge of collapse. But McCain said that there were no hard feelings and that the two men still talk from time to time. "John was a friend of mine, and he remains a friend of mine," the senator from Arizona said.

Within hours of the article's publication, McCain sought to turn it to his advantage, sending out a fundraising appeal decrying the "baseless attacks" and urging contributions. "With your immediate help today, we'll be able to respond and defend our nominee from the liberal attack machine," McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, said in an e-mail.

But McCain's attempts to build up his campaign coffers before a general election contest appeared to be threatened by the stern warning yesterday from Federal Election Commission Chairman David M. Mason, a Republican. Mason notified McCain that the commission had not granted his Feb. 6 request to withdraw from the presidential public financing system.

The implications of that could be dramatic. Last year, when McCain's campaign was starved for cash, he applied to join the financing system to gain access to millions of dollars in federal matching money. He was also permitted to use his FEC certification to bypass the time-consuming process of gathering signatures to get his name on the ballot in several states, including Ohio.

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