Like Politico editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei, I'm a little confused by all the conservative support for John McCain, post-Times story. Granted, it is the infernal New York Times, and the piece did lack a smoking gun. And, of course, the GOP is kind of stuck with McCain at this point. Still, as Harris and VandeHei write:

Imagine for a moment the story had been about McCain’s possible opponent in the general election, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Might the conservatives have paused to ask why he hired Robert S. Bennett, one of the capital’s most fearsome and expensive lawyers?

Might they have wondered why he had flown aboard a private jet with the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman — on a flight paid for by her client? Might they have probed more deeply why she was supposedly hanging around the senator’s planes, office and events often enough that his staff tried to impose an unofficial restraining order on her? ...

The Times’ reporters and editors involved in this story are top-notch. Such stories usually only go into the paper when reporters and their editors feel certain they are true — because they know a vicious response will likely follow.

Most importantly with this one, John Weaver, a former McCain aide, is on the record in the Times story saying he warned off the young lobbyist. ... The Weaver comments alone would seem enough to give some conservatives pause.

In light of all this, it seems overwhelmingly likely that incriminating details will find their way into the meda over the next eight months.

Already, on Saturday, we had this doozy of a piece in The Washington Post. Key details:

Broadcaster Lowell "Bud" Paxson yesterday contradicted statements from Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign that the senator did not meet with Paxson or his lobbyist before sending two controversial letters to the Federal Communications Commission on Paxson's behalf.

Paxson said he talked with McCain in his Washington office several weeks before the Arizona Republican wrote the letters in 1999 to the FCC urging a rapid decision on Paxson's quest to acquire a Pittsburgh television station.

Paxson also recalled that his lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, likely attended the meeting in McCain's office and that Iseman helped arrange the meeting. "Was Vicki there? Probably," Paxson said in an interview with The Washington Post yesterday. "The woman was a professional. She was good. She could get us meetings." ...

Statements from McCain's office said Iseman met only with staff and indicated that a staff member was involved in drafting and sending the letter. Thursday's statement went to lengths to say why McCain could not have met with Paxson.

"Senator McCain was actively engaged in a presidential campaign in 1999-2000, and according to his calendar, the last day he conducted business in the Senate was November 8, 1999, and was frequently absent from the Senate prior to that," the statement said. "Between November 22, 1999 and Christmas, the Senator did not return to the Senate for any substantive meetings as he was involved in a national book tour and a presidential campaign." ...

McCain attorney Robert S. Bennett played down the contradiction between the campaign's written answer and Paxson's recollection.

"We understood that he [McCain] did not speak directly with him [Paxson]. Now it appears he did speak to him. What is the difference?" Bennett said. "McCain has never denied that Paxson asked for assistance from his office. It doesn't seem relevant whether the request got to him through Paxson or the staff. His letters to the FCC concerning the matter urged the commission to make up its mind. He did not ask the FCC to approve or deny the application. It's not that big a deal."

Still feeling good about your McCain bet, Senor Rushbo? This seems like just the beginning...

--Noam Scheiber