Debate in question as McCain stalls campaign amid the bailout crisis

The Baltimore Sun

Declaring that it was time to "set politics aside," Sen. John McCain said yesterday that he would temporarily stop campaigning and seek to delay tomorrow night's debate with Sen. Barack Obama to return to Washington to help to forge an agreement on a proposed $700 billion bailout of financial institutions before Congress.

The Obama campaign rejected McCain's call to delay their debate, the first of what are expected to be three decisive sessions between the two presidential contenders.

Hours later, both McCain and Obama accepted President Bush's invitation to meet with him today to address the crisis.

McCain's actions not only cast doubt on whether the highly anticipated debate would come off, but they also thrust an unpredictable new element into the negotiations for the bailout, with some Democrats warning that the Arizona Republican's intervention could derail progress being made on the rescue package.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that McCain and Obama should not return to Washington and inject presidential politics into the bailout negotiations.

"We need leadership, not a photo op," a statement issued by Reid said.

But Republicans, eager for political cover from McCain on a bailout proposal that members of both parties see as deeply unpopular in the country, embraced his return. "The threats to Americans, and their homes, savings and retirements, is not a partisan problem, and it won't be fixed with a partisan approach," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He called McCain's attempt to forge a deal an "outstanding idea."

Explaining his decision to reject McCain's call to postpone their debate in Oxford, Miss., Obama cited the gravity of the financial crisis afflicting the nation.

"It is my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who, in approximately 40 days, will be responsible for dealing with this mess," the Illinois Democrat said. "It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."

McCain's move came hours after Obama reached out to him requesting that they issue a joint statement about the financial crisis. McCain's resulting decision seeking to postpone the first debate was yet another unpredictable, daring step taken by his campaign over the past month: Its selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate shook up the race in late August, and days later the campaign stripped down the first day of the Republican National Convention because of the threat of Hurricane Gustav.

In the midst of the confusion, officials with the Commission on Presidential Debates said that they were moving forward with the debate and that talks with the McCain campaign throughout the day had not convinced them of the Republican nominee's position. "We believe the public will be well served by having all of the debates go forward as scheduled," the commission said in a statement.

The University of Mississippi, the host of the debate, said it was also proceeding with the event as planned.

The meeting with Bush today was precipitated by a call from McCain, who cast his request as a matter of urgent national priority. "Following Sept. 11, our national leaders came together at a time of crisis," McCain told a small group of reporters, while reading the brief statement from a teleprompter, at the New York Hilton Hotel. "We must show that kind of patriotism now."

Reid's opposition to McCain's return was described as disingenuous by McCain's advisers, who only hours earlier had said that McCain was returning to Washington in part as a response to Reid. "Senator Reid last night made clear in his view that it was up to John McCain to provide leadership on this matter," Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain campaign adviser, told reporters yesterday afternoon.

Tomorrow's debate was to focus on McCain's perceived strength, foreign policy. McCain had not planned to devote the large blocks of time to debate practice as Obama, who was holing up with a tight circle of advisers at a hotel in Clearwater, Fla., yesterday, today and tomorrow to prepare. McCain had a preparatory session yesterday afternoon at the Morgan Library in Manhattan, but advisers said it was interrupted by his decision, announced immediately afterward, to suspend his campaign. McCain had also planned for prep sessions this afternoon and tomorrow in Oxford.

Democrats were withering in their reaction to McCain's decision.

"With polls showing his campaign is at its weakest, Senator McCain's decision may have less to do with the drop in the Dow Jones average and more to do with the decline in the Gallup poll," Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said in a statement.

"It's a little late in the game to say I'm going to come help you with a bill," said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts. "Much of it has already been done."

McCain has said he will return to Washington after addressing former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative session today in New York. He canceled a appearance scheduled for last night on CBS' The Late Show with David Letterman and a meeting with the Indian prime minister.

McCain's running mate was canceling her limited campaign events. Palin said in an interview yesterday with the CBS Evening News that the country could be headed for another Great Depression if Congress doesn't reach a solution.

Throughout the day, McCain and Obama were locked in an unusual back-and-forth about the bailout and McCain's decision to suspend his campaign. The exchange started with a morning telephone call from Obama to McCain to ask whether McCain would issue a joint statement on the government bailout plan. But McCain was not available to take the call, and the two did not connect until six hours later, about 2:30 p.m.

At that point, they had what the McCain campaign described as a 10-minute phone call, but the substance of it remained in dispute between the two campaigns. According to Schmidt, McCain told Obama that he was going to suspend his campaign and return to Washington and that he had called Bush to ask that he convene a meeting on the crisis.

But Obama said he was left with the impression from the conversation that McCain was "mulling over" suspending the debates as an option, not a final decision.

Obama conceded being taken by surprise by the afternoon announcement from McCain, which Obama aides said occurred about 10 minutes after the phone conversation between the two men.

Obama stopped short of suggesting that his Republican opponent was playing politics, but he did say with a glint of humor that both he and McCain were capable of engaging in the debate and negotiations in Congress at the same time.

"If it turns out that we need to be in Washington, we've both got big planes - we've painted our slogans on the sides of them," Obama said. "They can get us from Washington, D.C., to Mississippi fairly quickly."

Two members of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan group that has sponsored the debates since 1988, said yesterday that they were pursuing a strategy of trying to force McCain's hand by having the full commission release a strongly worded statement saying that the debate would go forward as planned.

The commission members noted that past debates had been held during moments of crisis, such as the attack on the USS Cole during the 2000 debates, and that they believed both McCain and Obama could follow through on their commitment to participate in tomorrow night's debate while also exercising their duties as senators amid the bailout negotiations.

"Our role is not to play referee on their involvement in or concern about the bailout talks, but to hold a debate that all sides have agreed to," said one commission member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because members had agreed not to speak beyond the commission statement released yesterday. "At this point, we see no reason to cancel the debate."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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