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TOLEDO, Ohio (Reuters) - Republican presidential front-runner John McCain on Thursday dismissed as untrue a New York Times report suggesting he had a close and possibly romantic relationship with a female lobbyist nine years ago, a potentially embarrassing conflict of interest.
"Obviously I'm very disappointed in the article. It's not true," the four-term Arizona senator told a news conference with his wife, Cindy, by his side.
"At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust or make a decision which in any way would not be in the public interest and would favor any one or any organization," said McCain, who has promoted higher ethics among lawmakers since a brush with scandal 20 years ago.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that McCain, 71, had a close relationship with a telecommunications lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, saying that early in McCain's failed bid for the 2000 presidential election, members of his campaign had grown concerned the relationship might harm the campaign.
"Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself -- instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity," the Times reported.
At his news conference, McCain described Iseman as a "friend" whom he has seen on various occasions in Washington including fund-raisers and receptions and denied any romantic or improper involvement with her.
"I have many friends in Washington that represent various interests," he said. He last saw her several months ago at "some event," he added.
He said he knew nothing of confrontations between himself and aides whom the Times said had urged him to stay away from Iseman out of fear that she could damage his political future.
"I don't know anything about it," he said.
The Times, whose image has been hurt in recent years by two high-profile reporting scandals, was criticized for the story's content, use of unidentified sources and timing, which came after McCain had defeated his main rivals and was almost certain to become the Republican presidential nominee for the November 4 general election.
Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel told MSNBC that he would not have published the story.
Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said the substance of the story was clear and he defended the timing of its publication.
"Our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready," he said. "'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."
Senior McCain adviser Steve Schmidt called the story "deeply unfair" and a "smear." "It reads like a tabloid gossip sheet," he told reporters. Campaign manager Rick Davis derided it as a "sleazy smear attack from a liberal newspaper."
The Times' editorial pages endorsed McCain last month as its favorite Republican candidate.
The Times story cited instances where it said McCain had appeared to undermine his own demands for high ethical behavior in Congress. The Times and The Washington Post quoted veteran McCain aide John Weaver, who no longer works for the campaign, as saying he had urged Iseman to stay away from McCain.
McCain denied knowledge of any such meeting.
McCain, a decorated prisoner of war during the Vietnam war with a 25-year record in Congress, has written legislation to limit the influence of money in politics. He would be the oldest person to ever win a first presidential term.
Cindy McCain defended her husband, saying she and her children trusted him. "He is a man of great character," she said. "Obviously I am very disappointed in The New York Times."
Editing by David Alexander and David Wiessler