As Senator John McCain waited to speak at the annual awards dinner of the International Republican Institute, a democracy-building group he has led for 15 years, lobbyists and business executives dominated the stage at a Washington hotel ballroom.
First up that night in September 2006 was the institute's vice chairman, Peter T. Madigan, a McCain campaign fund-raiser and lobbyist whose clients span the globe, from Dubai to Colombia. He thanked Timothy P. McKone, an AT&T lobbyist and McCain fund-raiser, for helping with the dinner arrangements and then introduced the chairman of AT&T, Edward E. Whitacre Jr., whose company had donated $200,000 for the event.
AT&T at the time was seeking political support for an $80 billion merger with BellSouth -- another Madigan client -- and Mr. Whitacre lavished praise on Mr. McCain, a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee. When Mr. McCain finally took the podium, he expressed "profound thanks" to AT&T before presenting the institute's Freedom Award to the president of Liberia, a lobbying client of Charlie Black, an institute donor and McCain campaign adviser.
The parade of lobbyists and fund-raisers at the dinner is emblematic of Mr. McCain's tenure at the institute, one of a pair of nonprofit groups -- taxpayer-financed and each allied with one of the two major political parties -- that were created during the Reagan era to promote democracy in closed societies.
Over the years, Mr. McCain has nurtured a reputation for bucking the Republican establishment and criticizing the influence of special interests in politics. But an examination of his leadership of the Republican institute -- one of the least-chronicled aspects of his political life -- reveals an organization in many ways at odds with the political outsider image that has become a touchstone of the McCain campaign for president.