First Debate's Fate Unclear As Obama Resists McCain's Call to Postpone

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama will abandon the campaign trail today for a bipartisan meeting at the White House, as the financial crisis gripping the nation roils the presidential race and leaves the first debate between the nominees in limbo.

Obama agreed to the meeting after a phone call yesterday evening from President Bush, the finale of a remarkable day in which McCain tried to change the dynamics of the race by announcing that he would "suspend" his campaign until the crisis is solved and called on Obama to do the same.

With the economy moving squarely to the forefront of Americans' concerns and polls showing that voters trust Obama more than McCain to fix it, the Republican nominee made what he hoped would be a game-changing gambit yesterday: leave the campaign trail, delay tomorrow's debate and call for Obama to join him in trying to fashion an alternative to the Bush administration's $700 billion bailout of Wall Street before financial markets open on Monday morning.

"I am calling on the president to convene a meeting with the leadership from both houses of Congress, including Senator Obama and myself," McCain said in a hastily arranged appearance in New York, during which he declined to answer reporters' questions. "It is time for both parties to come together to solve this problem."

His aides said he was unilaterally pulling his campaign ads and ceasing fundraising activities.

Obama initially resisted the idea of returning to Washington, saying injecting "presidential politics" into the congressional negotiations might do more harm than good. And he said McCain's gesture was unnecessary.

"It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once," Obama said at a news conference late yesterday afternoon called in response to McCain's appearance. "I think there's no reason why we can't be constructive in helping to solve this problem and also tell the American people what we believe, and where we stand, and where we want to take the country."

But after Bush did exactly as McCain had requested in calling the meeting, the Democrat had no choice but to agree.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the senator from Illinois has been working all week with congressional leaders and administration officials "to improve this proposal, and he has said that he will continue to work in a bipartisan spirit and do whatever is necessary to come up with a final solution."

But Burton said the first presidential debate, to be held tomorrow in Oxford, Miss., should go on as planned.

Obama "strongly believes the debate should go forward on Friday so that the American people can hear from their next president about how he will lead America forward at this defining moment for our country," Burton said. The debate is slated to be the first of three between the candidates. The Commission on Presidential Debates took the unusual step last night of issuing a statement indirectly but unmistakably pressuring McCain to stick to the original schedule: "We believe the public will be well served by having all of the debates go forward as scheduled."

But if McCain does not attend, "there won't be a debate," said one person involved in the negotiations. The event could be changed to another date, and McCain aides said that "everything was on the table" when it came to rescheduling the debate. That includes the possibility of holding it next Thursday, when the vice presidential nominees -- Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- are scheduled to face off, and delaying their debate.

Gamesmanship was part of McCain's surprise announcement -- Obama had called the senator from Arizona yesterday morning to discuss issuing a joint statement of principles on the bailout plan, much of which the two agree upon. Instead of making the statement, McCain informed Bush of his plans to halt campaigning and return to Washington.

The sequence of events touched off an immediate battle over whether McCain's actions were an example of his "country first" motto of bipartisan cooperation or a political stunt from a candidate who has fallen in the polls.

The reaction did not portend the bipartisan approach that both candidates say is necessary to solve the crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who Tuesday that McCain "needs to let us know where he stands," flatly rejected the idea of the candidates returning to join the deliberations. "It would not be helpful at this time to have them come back during these negotiations and risk injecting presidential politics into this process or distract important talks about the future of our nation's economy," he said. "If that changes, we will call upon them. We need leadership; not a campaign photo op."

Bush led Republicans in embracing McCain's gesture, and his call to Obama made it impossible for the Democrat to decline.

"We are making progress in negotiations on the financial markets rescue legislation, but we have not finished it yet," press secretary Dana Perino said. "Bipartisan support from Senators McCain and Obama would be helpful in driving to a conclusion."

Added House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio): "I strongly support Senator McCain's proposal for a bipartisan leadership meeting of both Houses of Congress, including Senator McCain and Senator Obama."

But faced with the prospect of McCain returning to Washington and trying to claim credit for negotiating a bailout deal, Boehner and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a joint statement saying they already have made bipartisan progress.

"Our shared goal is to make the proposal more accountable to taxpayers," they said. "Working in a bipartisan manner, we have made progress. We agree that key changes should be made to the Administration's initial proposal."

McCain aides said the senator's motives were pure.

"You didn't hear a hint of a partisan attack or posturing in that statement," senior adviser Mark Salter said. "He really wants he and Senator Obama -- leadership, throw in the chairmen, the administration -- to lock themselves in a room for the next 100 hours or however long it is between now and Monday morning, and achieve some kind of consensus on something that will have the Congress's support."

Several polls -- both nationally and in key states -- showed sharp movement toward Obama over the past two weeks. A Washington Post-ABC News national poll had an 11-point shift, about matched by a nine-point move in a Fox poll. New CNN polls in Pennsylvania and Colorado also showed a significant turn toward the Democratic nominee.

Other polls showed little change since the Republican National Convention, and the McCain campaign held a news conference yesterday morning to dispute the Post-ABC survey. But all public polls this week show a decided advantage for Obama on handling the economy.

In the Post-ABC poll, Obama had a 24-point edge on the question of which candidate better understands the economic problems Americans are now confronting. He also had a double-digit advantage on handling the economy, just as he did in new Wall Street Journal-NBC News and Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg polls.

Obama and his senior campaign aides were roiled by McCain's announcement, describing it as a stunning twist to what they had thought was unfolding as a quiet and deliberative effort to show bipartisan solidarity before Bush's speech last night.

In back-to-back news conferences on Tuesday, Obama and McCain outlined nearly identical priorities for what the bailout legislation should include, such as benefits for taxpayers, restrictions on executive pay, and bipartisan oversight.

Later that evening, Obama received a phone message from Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative Oklahoma Republican with whom he has worked previously on legislation. According to Obama, Coburn suggested that a joint statement outlining these shared principles might be helpful.

At 8:30 a.m. yesterday, Obama called McCain to run the idea by him, but the two did not talk.

About 2:30 p.m., Obama was leaving a rally at a minor league baseball stadium in Dunedin, Fla., when McCain returned his call. In a conversation that lasted about five minutes, Obama said the two discussed the joint statement idea and exchanged contact information so their aides could follow up.

Obama said McCain also raised the idea of suspending his campaign and delaying the debate. Obama said he did not rule out either option, but told McCain he wanted to see how events unfolded and suggested the candidates first address the immediate priority of speaking with one voice before Bush's address. By the time Obama returned to his hotel about 20 minutes later, McCain had already made his announcement.

In the McCain camp's version of events, the senator from Arizona became convinced during consultations with Republican congressional leaders that a joint statement would not be enough.

"What is clear from all of these conversations is two things -- first this is a dire situation," said Steve Schmidt, the day-to-day manager of McCain's campaign. "The second thing that is clear is that the administration proposal had lost all momentum. It did not have enough support to pass."

Staff writers Michael D. Shear, Shailagh Murray, Anne E. Kornblut and Robert G. Kaiser and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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