He’s holding a pro forma presser as I write this to sniff at the charges, which I thought was a foolish way of making a small story into a big deal until I saw this. It’s already big; might as well hit back. The conspiracy theories swirl: Who fed this to the Times last year, back when Maverick was still a longshot? Is Gibby right that the Times endorsed him last month, after this was already in the works, the better to sandbag him now? Could TNR’s murky role in all of this be payback for McCain laughing at them over l’affaire Beauchamp? And the greatest conspiracy of all — could the Times so love their Maverick that they’d set themselves up as a dragon for McCain to slay and thereby reclaim his conservative bona fides? Well, er, no, but that’s the effect!

The McCain campaign is using a two-pronged attack to push back against the story. First, they’ll argue it was a thinly sourced piece of innuendo journalism. But McCain aides will also strike at the source, using the Times’ liberal reputation as a means of self-defense to draw sympathy from the GOP’s conservative base.

To this end, a top McCain adviser accused the paper of practicing tabloid journalism.

“It’s not every night I stay up to read the National Enquirer,” said Charlie Black, who was with other top McCain aides at the senator’s Arlington, Va., headquarters to mount the counterattack.

Black noted he had taken heat from some of his “conservative friends’ after McCain won the paper’s endorsement in January. “We’re going to go to war with them now,” Black said. “We’ll see if that hurts or helps.”

The whole campaign’s hitting the “National Enquirer” talking point, including Mark McKinnon and Mark Salter, who offers more background on the role of the House of Foer in this:

Salter blamed the New York Times’ obsession with this sort of intramural scorekeeping as the paper’s real motivation for going ahead with a story “they’d already spiked.” “They did this because the The New Republic was going to run a story that looked back at the infighting there,” Salter said, “the Judy Miller-type power struggles — they decided that they would rather smear McCain than suffer a story that made the New York Times newsroom look bad.”…

Salter also said that the Senator would soon release statements from those people interviewed by the Times for the story — “dozens” according to him — who denied many of the facts alleged in the story (including Iseman’s supposedly frequent presence in the Senate office), but who were not quoted in the piece.

They’ve already released this so clearly they’ve been preparing. As for the supposed infighting at the Times, note the detail in Jim Rutenberg’s reply to Patrick Hynes that not only doesn’t he want to talk about the piece, no one else at the paper wants to talk about it either. We’ll see what TNR has to say later. In the meantime, if the Times is hot for stories about lobbyists exercising influence over major candidates, how about this?

Exit question one: What are the odds that Maverick would be linked to someone named Iceman? Exit question two: What are Huck and, especially, Mitt thinking right now? Halperin wonders.

Update: Commenter Weight of Glory contrasts the McCain spin shop with the Bush version.

Update: SECOND LOOK AT THE DRAGONSLAYER THEORY!

Update: Is this the “last twist” that Huck’s been counting on to deliver him the nomination? The story’s been in the works for months and has been teased on Drudge more than once. Huck’s staffers haven’t been shy in the past about hinting at secret knowledge of scandals set to break. Huck probably hung around hoping that the bomb would drop and would be big enough to knock Maverick out of the race, leaving him the last man standing.

But if he knew, why didn’t Romney know?

Update: An interesting detail buried near the end of the Politico piece linked up top. Here’s what the TNR story’s going to focus on, assuredly:

Reporters Jim Rutenberg, Stephen Labaton, and Marilyn Thompson — who’s leaving the paper — also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

On Feb. 12, the Washington Post announced that Thompson would be leaving the Times and returning to the Post, her employer for fourteen years.

Rumors had circulated internally that Thompson had been working on the McCain piece and was dissatisfied it had not yet run, according to two Times staffers.

Update: Here’s the first few minutes of the presser.

Update: And here’s the Q&A about Iseman.