Key campaign staff for the GOP presidential candidate lobbied for Airbus when it was competing with Boeing for an Air Force contract.

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WASHINGTON — To show that he’s a crusader against wasteful spending and congressional corruption, Sen. John McCain repeatedly brags about his leading role in stopping a scandal-plagued air-tanker contract between the Air Force and Boeing in 2004.

Four years later, a new $35 billion contract has been awarded to Europe’s Airbus consortium and Northrop Grumman, a military contractor based in Los Angeles, to build the latest generation of tanker planes. The decision has sparked anger from congressional supporters of Boeing and critics of outsourcing.

It also has focused attention on McCain’s reliance on lobbyists in his campaign for president because his finance chairman and several other top advisers lobbied on behalf of Airbus last year at a time when Boeing and Airbus were in fierce competition for the Air Force contract.

Boeing, which filed an appeal with the Government Accountability Office, is expected to focus at least in part on McCain’s role in the tanker deal, including letters he sent urging the Defense Department, in evaluating the tanker bids, not to consider the potential effects of a separate U.S.-Airbus trade dispute.

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McCain has spoken out for years against the influence of special interests in Washington, but his campaign includes a number of prominent D.C. lobbyists, including campaign manager Rick Davis, who founded a lobbying firm, and top political adviser Charles Black, chief executive of a well-known Washington firm. McCain finance chairman Tom Loeffler and Susan Nelson, who left Loeffler’s lobbying firm to be McCain’s finance director, both began lobbying for the parent company of Airbus in 2007, Senate records show.

William Ball, a former secretary of the Navy and frequent McCain surrogate on the trail, also lobbied for Airbus, as did John Green, who recently took a leave from Ogilvy Public Relations to serve as McCain’s legislative liaison.

“Airbus, I have to give them credit,” said R. Thomas Buffenbarger, the president of the International Association of Machinists, which represents Boeing employees. “They know they need that kind of lobbying help. And they went after people who could deliver.”

It is not clear what the McCain aides did on behalf of Airbus. Lobbying registration documents list only “initiatives and interests regarding the KC-30 Aerial Refueling Tanker Program.”

McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said the Arizona senator and his advisers have done “nothing improper” in the tanker deal.

On the campaign trail, McCain hails his involvement in the years-long search for a modern tanker as evidence of his commitment to rooting out special interests. In 2004, he led the congressional investigation that uncovered a bribery scandal in which top Boeing and Air Force officials landed in jail or were forced to resign.

“I saved the taxpayers $6 billion in a bogus tanker deal,” he said in a recent debate.

But the easy applause line at town-hall meetings has become a much murkier issue for the presidential hopeful.

McCain has acknowledged sending two letters to Defense Department officials urging them to level the playing field for a deal that would provide a fleet of in-air refueling services for military aircraft. In one 2006 letter, he urged officials to change their criteria for evaluating bidders for the tanker contract.

“I am concerned that if the Air Force proceeds down its chosen path … the Air Force will risk eliminating competition before bids are submitted,” he wrote.

McCain has steadfastly said his role in the process has been one of a neutral arbiter. Tuesday, McCain said he had “nothing to do” with the winning Airbus contract other than insisting on a fair process.

“I think my record is very clear on this issue, including a paper trail of letters that we wrote to the Department of Defense during this process and saying clearly and unequivocally we just want a fair process and we don’t want a repeat of the previous process,” McCain said in St. Louis, according to The Associated Press.

McCain’s spokeswoman said the senator sent the letters months before the Airbus group hired his advisers.

But some McCain critics say the deal creates the appearance of hypocrisy.

Airbus parent EADS North America more than tripled its contributions to U.S. lawmakers after 2004, as they pursued the Air Force contract, according to an analysis done by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). McCain was the top individual recipient of contributions from the company in the 2008 election cycle.

“This isn’t your average Washington politician. It’s John McCain, crusader against special interests and presidential contender,” said Sheila Krumholz, CRP’s executive director. “It’s more than purely coincidental that he was their top target.”

Information from The New York Times is included in this report.

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