Democrats Feud; McCain Stews over 'Times' Piece Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama returned to sharp rhetoric at Thursday's debate in Austin, Texas. And Sen. John McCain is still simmering over a New York Times story alleging improper behavior with a lobbyist.

Democrats Feud; McCain Stews over 'Times' Piece

Democrats Feud; McCain Stews over 'Times' Piece

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Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama returned to sharp rhetoric at Thursday's debate in Austin, Texas. And Sen. John McCain is still simmering over a New York Times story alleging improper behavior with a lobbyist.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, Slate.com's Emily Yoffe applies the Myers-Briggs to the presidential candidates. Who fits which profile coming up.

CHADWICK: NPR News analyst Juan Williams is back with us for our regular Friday interview. Juan, you are in a, I think, snowy New York City.

JUAN WILLIAMS: It's a winter wonderland, Alex. It's unbelievable how much snow is falling.

CHADWICK: Yeah. A storm there. Not so stormy last night in Texas at the Democratic debate there. Here's a cut I want to play. This is Hillary Clinton toward the end of the encounter that evening, and just listen to what she says and how she says it.

(Soundbite of presidential debate)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Debate): No matter what happens in this contest, and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHADWICK: So I'm hearing her sounding a little resigned maybe, not the I'm the person, I'm going to be it.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I got that sense, that valedictory sense a little bit. But I don't want to overplay it, because I think it also is a strategic move, because as you heard, it got a tremendously strong and positive response from the audience, Alex. And so while all of us are wondering is there a moment at which she's going to concede or signal that she's giving up, in fact it had a very positive response with a specific demographic that she's interested in, which is making sure she's doing well with American white suburban women, and with the Latino audience. A lot of people don't like to see the fighting, and so what you saw was that she in fact was extending a hand of grace. And some people may say, you know what, that's the kind of mature leadership we're seeking.

CHADWICK: Well, that may be, but an awful lot of people are already writing about Obama versus McCain, and Senator McCain is talking as though he's running against Senator Obama.

WILLIAMS: He sure is, Alex. In fact, after the results came in on Tuesday night, there was Senator McCain saying that Senator Obama is guilty of eloquent but empty calls for change, suggesting that he would have America take a holiday from history and that he's not prepared because of lack of experience, not prepared to deal with world threats. In fact, Senator Clinton picked up on much of that theme last night, brining in events from Cuba and Serbia, and suggesting again that Senator Obama just doesn't have the wherewithal in terms of experience and sense of maturity to deal with world crises. But it was McCain's attack on Senator Obama, it seemed to me, that signaled the start of a general election theme here.

CHADWICK: The thing is, this line hasn't really worked for her. You wonder if it's going to work any better for him.

WILLIAMS: You know, I was talking to some Republicans about this because it occurred to me that, just as you just said, it hasn't worked for her. And of course Senator Obama picked up on this line of thought, saying you're making it out like all of my supporters have been duped or fooled or don't know who I am and don't know my background. But the Republicans, Alex, think this, that John McCain, someone who served in the military, someone who's a little bit older, someone who has always been strong on military issues and expressed a great deal of concern about the U.S. military actions in Iraq, they think Americans are going to be more tuned in in a general election in which Republicans focus on Republicans as better defenders of the nation than Democrats historically, and that that contrast will have some power in the general election that it has not had in the primaries.

CHADWICK: There's been some focus this week on a story the New York Times published yesterday about Senator McCain, alleging that years ago he may have had inappropriate contact with a lobbyist. Here is part of Senator McCain's very firm denial of that story.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust, nor make a decision which in any way would not be in the public interest and would favor anyone or any organization.

CHADWICK: Juan, you have read, as I have, a lot of criticism of the New York Times for publishing this story. But I have one question about Senator McCain's response to it. In his statement he says I have never done a favor for a lobbyist, I've never done a favor for a special interest, when in fact he was one of the Keating 5, these senators who did favors for the man who subsequently went to jail for a big part in the savings and loan scandals of the early 90's. And he was to have exercised - I think poor judgment was the term that was used by a Senate committee that investigated that.

WILLIAMS: You know, I sat down with Senator McCain for lunch - I guess it was about a year ago, Alex. And in the course of the conversation, the Keating 5 scandal came up. And the way that he treats it is, it's the most searing experience of his political life and one that set him on the path to being a reformer.

CHADWICK: NPR News analyst Juan Williams in New York. Good luck getting back home to D.C. this weekend.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I'll get my sled dogs out, Alex.

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'Times' Draws Criticism for Timing of McCain Story

'Times' Draws Criticism for Timing of McCain Story

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More from Bill Keller

Hear more from "New York Times" Executive Editor Bill Keller:

Keller on why McCain's relationship with a lobbyist matters

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Keller on the use of anonymous sources for the McCain article

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Thursday's controversial scoop in The New York Times started with a tip about a confrontation between Arizona Sen. John McCain and some of his staff involving a lobbyist during his first run for the presidency in 2000, according to the newspaper Executive Editor Bill Keller.

Then, Keller says, the story became more complex.

"If, hypothetically, we had established that he had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist — and had done favors for that lobbyist — that would have been a different story," he says.

But the newspaper was not able to confirm any relationship. Instead, Keller tells NPR that the article that ran Thursday morning provided a slightly different insight into one of the nation's leading candidates for president.

"It's not a 'gotcha' story about some kind of quid pro quo," he says. "We don't know if there was a quid or a quo in this case. What we do know is that people very close to him, who watched him day after day, were worried enough by his behavior that they felt that he was endangering his career."

The editors and four reporters at the Times who were involved in the story wrestled for months over this potentially explosive scoop. But what did they have?

As far back as December, the reporters thought they could show an inappropriate relationship between McCain and telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Some of her clients had business before the Senator Commerce Committee that McCain then chaired. The reporters wanted the story in print — and Gabe Sherman wrote about the reporters' frustrations in a piece posted Thursday by The New Republic.

"Oftentimes, the reporters will have reporting and just such a strong intimate sense of the story that they know it to be true. They know it in their veins to be true. And, there's always that editor that says, 'What can we print? What can we go with?'" Sherman says.

Keller wanted harder proof — and that took more reporting. Meanwhile, McCain called Keller to complain that the reporters' questions about his personal life were spurring rumors around town. He urged the editor to hurry up and wrap up his staffers' reporting. Blogger Matt Drudge splashed a gossipy item about it on his Web site in December.

But the story did not run until late February — and that has prompted questions about the timing. Did the newspaper hold the article while McCain's nomination by the Republican Party was in doubt? Or, was its hand forced by the imminent appearance of Sherman's magazine article on the newspaper's handling of the story?

Keller says the piece ran only because it was finally ready.

Keller says the relevance of McCain's relationship to Iseman stems from his political identity as someone who wages war against monied powerbrokers seeking to exert influence on Capitol Hill.

"He came back from Vietnam a hero, entered into public life and then was felled by the Keating Five scandal," Keller says. "If you read his books, it was clearly a humiliating event for him. And he subsequently built his political life on themes of redemption, reform, you know, rectitude, if you will — and became the scourge of lobbyists, the champion of campaign finance reform, and so on, in Washington."

"Yet, according to some people who knew him best, he can be surprisingly careless about his reputation," Keller says. "And that's what I think this, his relationship with this particular lobbyist, illustrates, although I think there's a lot of other illustrations as well in the piece."

Thursday morning, McCain played media critic during a news conference to deny the relationship. He also denied that he had done any corporation any favors, assailing the Times' reliance on anonymous sources.

Keller says the Times is judicious in relying on unnamed sources in the McCain story.

"Obviously, you would like to have not just on-the-record sources, but documentary evidence for everything you put in the newspaper," Keller says. "But if you refused to publish stories that included anonymously sourced information, most of the most important things we know about how our country is run would not published. There are things you just cannot find without being willing to protect your sources."

The McCain camp and the Republican Party also sent out fundraising appeals accusing the Times of a sleazy smear.

Sherman says McCain is looking to change the subject.

"The McCain campaign is looking to make this a media story and a referendum on the Times' journalistic standards," he said.

The episode was enough, at least for the moment, to rally the right to his defense, including such luminaries as talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who has attacked McCain repeatedly this year as insufficiently conservative.

Conservative media critic Brent Bozell took a shot on the Fox News Channel, by saying that The New York Times is giving the National Enquirer a bad name.

Some non-ideological critics focused on the failure to prove the affair, or the favoritism.

Keller says that misses the point.

"I think the story that emerged is actually bigger, and more important and maybe more subtle," he says. "There's not a big market for subtle these days but I think it's an important story."

Keller says people should judge his paper's reporting as journalism, not as part of any political campaign.