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John McCain's Rapid-Fire Responders

Cameron said he apologized to Smith "for having misspoken" and giving "the impression that I had just spoken to Smith about the Washington Post story." He said he explained on the air the next day that his conversations with Smith, in which Cameron says Smith offered a slightly different version of his difficulties with McCain, occurred 15 years ago.

McCain himself sometimes leads the charge against negative media reports. When The Post reported last year that he was embracing some of the same fundraisers and tactics he had criticized in a long crusade against Washington special interests, McCain told CNN the article was the "worst hit job that has ever been done in my entire political career." The Post stood by the story but ran a correction for what it acknowledged was a misleading headline.

In the case of USA Today, McCain aides say the story failed to acknowledge that there was strong bipartisan support in Arizona for the land sale to the development firm whose employees have contributed to his campaigns.

An epic clash with the New York Times began heating up in December. When word leaked that several of its reporters were investigating McCain's dealings with a female lobbyist, McCain called Executive Editor Bill Keller to say he was being treated unfairly. The senator's aides say he simply wanted the chance to sit down with the paper's reporters.

In February, the Times reported that in 1999 some top aides in McCain's first presidential campaign intervened to block access by the lobbyist, and that some suspected she had a romantic relationship with the senator. The paper quoted McCain as denying such a relationship or the suggestion that he had done legislative favors for her clients, denials that he repeated at a news conference the morning the story appeared.

The campaign mounted a sharp counterattack. Schmidt, the McCain spokesman, told reporters that the article "was something that you would see in the National Enquirer, not in the New York Times." Campaign manager Rick Davis sent out a fundraising letter charging that "the liberal establishment and their allies at The New York Times have gone on the attack."

The episode may, on balance, have helped McCain. Numerous commentators, including the paper's own ombudsman, criticized the Times for suggesting an illicit relationship based on unnamed sources who did not claim to have firsthand knowledge.

Keller said in an interview in February that McCain's advisers were trying "to use the New York Times as an opportunity to rally the base" and that the story was "fair and balanced."

The clash left bruises on both sides. After such an "incredibly sensitive" story, said Richard Stevenson, the Times editor overseeing campaign coverage, "it's fair to say that there were some bad feelings. McCain's aides are fierce advocates for their candidate." But, he added, "whatever feelings the McCain folks might have, we haven't let it affect the way we do our jobs."

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