John McCain's Rapid-Fire Responders

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When Newsweek ran a story last week on how John McCain and his allies may attack Barack Obama in the fall, the Arizona senator's top adviser fired off a letter calling the article "offensive" and "scurrilous" -- and threatened to kick the magazine's reporter off the campaign plane.

After The Washington Post reported on McCain's support for a land swap that wound up benefiting one of his top fundraisers, McCain called The Post Co.'s chief executive, Donald Graham, last week to complain.

And when USA Today reported Friday that McCain had won $14 million for the Air Force to buy land from the same Arizona developer, a campaign spokesman denounced the story as "absurd," "shameful" and a "smear job."

While McCain enjoys an image as a media darling, based largely on his bantering relationship with reporters on his bus, he and his presidential campaign aides have been hitting back hard against high-profile news reports they regard as inaccurate or unfair. The result is a more contentious relationship between the presumed Republican nominee and major news organizations than is publicly apparent.

"If stories are wrong, we have an absolute obligation to say so, and to say so as loudly as we can," said Mark Salter, McCain's longtime confidant, who writes the rebuttal letters. "It's not working the refs. It's just correcting things when the refs blow a call."

The McCain camp also circulates these letters to conservative radio hosts and bloggers, hoping to provide an alternative narrative for the press. "There is no point in calling the reporter," said McCain strategist Steve Schmidt. "There is no point in calling the [story] editor." When confronted with untrue accusations, he said, "we will use that to communicate with our supporters and donors to take advantage of the unfairness."

This approach contrasts sharply with the popular image of McCain as enjoying a cozy relationship with media organizations that he has jokingly called "my base." That image is rooted in reality: McCain allows reporters to question him for hours at a time, is a frequent talk show guest and mingles easily among the media elite. On the trail, journalists enjoy his sarcastic sense of humor and have provided him with generally favorable treatment.

In March, McCain hosted traveling reporters at his ranch in Sedona, Ariz., grilling baby back ribs and chicken for his guests. In 2004, when McCain threw himself a swank birthday party in New York during the GOP convention, Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel, George Stephanopoulos, Chris Matthews, Charlie Rose and Don Graham were among those savoring the lobster salad, loin of lamb and creme brulee.

Behind the scenes, though, it is a rougher game. The Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and their operatives have at various times vigorously complained about their coverage or the questions asked at debates, and that is hardly unusual during a campaign. But GOP candidates often reap added benefits by challenging news organizations that polls show are less trusted by Republicans.

Salter says he and other aides take the lead against negative reporting because "you can't expect the candidate to sit down like a lawyer and pick apart every point in the story."

The Newsweek piece, by Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, said that "the Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968" and that McCain "may not be able to resist casting doubt on Obama's patriotism." Salter wrote Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham that McCain has repeatedly disavowed underhanded attacks by supporters against the Democratic front-runner.

The story, Salter wrote, said "ominously" that "our campaign includes Steve Schmidt and Charlie Black, characterizing them basically as noted Republican attack specialists. The Obama senior staffers were described as idealists and decent sorts. . . . Without a trace of skepticism, your reporters embraced the primary communications strategy the Obama campaign intends to follow: any criticism of their candidate is a below the belt, Republican attack machine distortion."

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