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REACTION FIERCE TO N.Y. TIMES

A New York Times story examining John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist eight years ago thrust the newspaper itself into the spotlight, with McCain slamming the story as a "hit-and-run smear campaign" and conservative pundits rallying to the senator's defense. The newspaper stood its ground.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh dismissed the story as "gossip," accusing the paper of sitting on it until just before McCain had the GOP nomination wrapped up - despite the paper's endorsement of him Jan. 25 for the New York primary.

Top McCain aide Mark Salter told Time magazine he believed the Times ran with the story because the New Republic magazine was about to run its own story - which it did post, on Thursday - detailing the conflict within the paper over getting the article into print, and wanted to avoid embarrassment. Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, said in a written response that the New Republic story "had nothing whatsoever to do with our decision."

The New Republic said the Times article came out only after three months of intense internal debate that left the reporters frustrated. The Drudge Report Web site reported about those frustrations in December and said McCain had been pressuring the Times not to print the story.

The article has taken on a life of its own, sparking a furious debate online. Some critics faulted the Times for relying on anonymous sources, retelling old stories about McCain and raising the possibility that he and the lobbyist may have had a romantic relationship without providing more than hearsay. Others said the story provided legitimate information about a presidential candidate. By Thursday afternoon, more than 2,000 comments had been posted on NYTimes.com.

The issue is particularly sensitive for McCain because he has staked much of his political career on standing up to special interests, a reputation he has worked on for years since being associated with an influence-peddling scandal.

Hours after the New York Times published its story online Wednesday, the Washington Post followed with a story saying McCain aides had asked the lobbyist to distance herself from the senator. The Post had been working on a story for some time and was able to finish after sources divulged more information following the Times report, executive editor Len Downie told Editor and Publisher.

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