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Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain toured Ford's Wayne assembly plant with his wife, Cindy, on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON — John McCain sought to minimize damage to his man-of-character image and his presidential hopes Thursday, vigorously denying and denouncing a newspaper report suggesting an improper relationship with a female lobbyist.

"It's not true," the likely Republican nominee said of the report that implied a romantic link with telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman and suggested McCain pushed legislation that would have benefited her clients.

"At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust," said McCain, a four-term Arizona senator and a hero of the Vietnam War. He described the lobbyist as a friend.

Efforts to reach Iseman for comment were unsuccessful.

McCain and his wife of 28 years said they were disappointed that The New York Times ran its front page article, and his campaign referred to a "smear campaign" and "gutter politics" in the midst of the presidential race.

The suggestion of marital impropriety — though rejected by both McCain and his wife — would seem to risk further damaging his acrimonious relationship with social conservatives.

But in a twist, there were early signs the brouhaha might actually help McCain solidify the GOP base.

Conservative pundits, who are some of McCain's harshest critics, could have jumped on the issue to question the strength of McCain's family values. Instead, they went after the Times.

"There is nothing in it here that you can say is true," Rush Limbaugh told his radio listeners. He accused the newspaper of "trying to take him out."

Another conservative voice, Laura Ingraham, contended the newspaper was trying to "contaminate" the GOP's nominee with an "absurd attack.'"

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a longtime supporter of McCain, said Thursday that the article was a "typical slam job on a good person" and compared the reporting to that of a tabloid, the National Enquirer.

The governor told reporters after taping his monthly news conference on KUED Channel 7 that McCain "is a man of honor and courage."

Huntsman surprised many by backing McCain when a candidate claimed as a "favorite son" by Utahns, Mitt Romney, was running to become the GOP presidential nominee. Romney dropped out of the race earlier this month and endorsed McCain.

By Thursday afternoon, the Arizona senator had begun a fundraising appeal based on the story.

"The New York Times ... has shown once again that it cannot exercise good journalistic judgment when it comes to dealing with a conservative Republican," campaign manager Rick Davis wrote in an e-mail to supporters. "We need your help to counteract the liberal establishment and fight back against The New York Times by making an immediate contribution today."

"We think the story speaks for itself," Times executive editor Bill Keller said in a written statement. "On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready. 'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats. This story was no exception. It was a long time in the works. It reached my desk late Tuesday afternoon. After a final edit and a routine check by our lawyers, we published it."

The article took on a life of its own, sparking a furious debate online — including the newspaper's own Web site. By Thursday afternoon, more than 2,000 comments about the story had been posted on NYTimes.com.

At the very least, the episode gives Democrats an opening to try to exploit McCain's decades-long ties to Washington even though he's known as a Republican lawmaker willing to stand up to special interests and reduce the influence of lobbyists. It's a reputation he has carefully honed in the aftermath of the Keating Five influence-peddling scandal decades ago. The Senate cited him for "poor judgment" in that matter but took no further action.

The Democratic National Committee said Thursday in a statement: "After 25 years in Washington, the real John McCain is just like the other D.C. insiders he rails against on the campaign trail. John McCain's 'do as I say, not as I do' approach to ethics and lobbying reform can be called a lot of things. 'Straight talk' isn't one of them."

Spokesmen for Democratic candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama declined to comment.

Several Republicans unaffiliated with McCain's campaign doubted it would have a long-term effect.

"The fact that it was The New York Times and the lack of sufficient detail undermines the credibility of the story," said Christopher LaCivita, a Republican strategist in Virginia. "Barring anything coming out that's new, I don't see this having much impact on McCain because his character is so well established."

"Most Republicans will look at this is The New York Times sliming Republicans," agreed John Feehery, a Republican consultant who was an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "If there is going to be lasting damage, it's going to be with independents."

Aware of the high stakes, McCain officials acted quickly. The campaign distributed statements deriding the story, deployed senior advisers to spread that message on TV news shows and arranged a news conference for McCain and his wife to personally address the matter as they campaigned in Toledo, Ohio.

"I'm very disappointed in the article," he told reporters.

Added Cindy McCain: "My children and I not only trust my husband but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America. He's a man of great character, and I'm very, very disappointed in The New York Times."

In the article, months in the making, anonymous McCain aides were quoted as having urged McCain and Iseman to stay away from each other in the run-up to his failed presidential campaign in 2000. In a separate story in The Washington Post, John Weaver, a longtime aide who split with McCain last year, said he personally met with Iseman and asked her to steer clear of the senator some eight years ago.

He called Iseman a friend, and said he wasn't any closer to her than to other lobbyists. He said, "I have many friends who represent various interests, ranging from the firemen to the police to senior citizens to various interests, particularly before my committee."

McCain had briefly addressed the issue — and defended his integrity — in December when questioned about reports that the Times was investigating allegations of legislative favoritism.

"I've never done any favors for anybody — lobbyist or special-interest group," he told reporters after the Drudge Report posted a story online that said his aides had been trying to dissuade the newspaper from publishing a story because, the aides said, it wasn't factual.

McCain aides say they were taken off guard Wednesday afternoon when they learned the paper would publish the story. They suggested the Times was prompted to publish the story after learning that The New Republic, a conservative publication, was readying an article about newsroom debate over the story at the newspaper.

Contributing: Seth Sutel, Associated Press; Lisa Riley Roche, Deseret Morning News