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Selfless or Reckless? McCain Gambles On Voters' Verdict

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 -- John McCain is a gambler by nature, and the bet he placed Wednesday may be among the biggest of his political life.

The Republican presidential nominee is hoping that his abrupt decision to suspend campaigning, seek a delay of Friday's debate with Democrat Barack Obama, and return to Washington to help prod negotiations over a financial rescue package will be seen as the kind of country-first, bipartisan leadership he believes Americans want.

What he risks, if things don't go as he hopes, is a judgment by voters that his move was a reckless act by an impetuous and struggling politician that hardened partisan lines in Washington at just the wrong moment and complicated efforts to deal with the biggest financial crisis in more than half a century.

McCain laid out his rationale in stark terms, saying that the economy is in crisis and that he does not believe the package now on the table in Washington can win enough votes to pass. "Americans across our country lament the fact that partisan divisions in Washington have prevented us from addressing our national challenges," he said here in New York. "Now is our chance to come together to prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country."

In the heated atmosphere of Wednesday afternoon, as the two campaigns plotted and maneuvered around each other, it was impossible to know what the ultimate verdict would be on McCain's surprise decision. He managed once again, at least in the short term, to shake up the presidential race at a time when national and state polls show Obama opening up a clear lead. And by day's end, he had forced his rival to blink.

Obama initially resisted McCain's call to join him and return to Washington. But hours later he was forced to capitulate when President Bush called him and asked him to participate in a White House meeting with congressional leaders and his GOP rival. Shortly after that, the two candidates issued a joint statement calling for action.

But while agreeing to go back to Washington, Obama insisted Wednesday night, as he had earlier in the day, that Friday's debate go ahead as scheduled.

"I believe that we should continue to have the debate," he told reporters in Florida, where he is preparing for it. "I think that it makes sense for us to present ourselves before the American people, to talk about the nature of the problems that we're having in our financial system, to talk about how it relates to our global standing in the world, what implications it has for our national security, how it relates to critical questions like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Much now will depend on whether McCain can deliver results and whether there is a constructive role for him and Obama, or whether they become a sideshow to the real negotiations. But Obama's course carries risks as well, if he looked as if he were standing on the sidelines while McCain pushed for intervention that could help avert further damage to the nation's economy.

The standoff over the debate left both candidates in potentially awkward positions, although there is plenty of time for it to be resolved. McCain may be reluctant to climb down from his insistence that the debate be delayed until there is an agreement on a package, but he could be seen as scuttling an important event for voters eager to see the two candidates side by side. Obama, on the other hand, may look high-handed if he insists on going ahead as negotiations in Washington reach a critical moment by this weekend.

At a minimum, voters were treated again to contrasting styles of leadership Wednesday, with McCain willing to act boldly, if impulsively, to inject himself into the middle of delicate negotiations to force a solution, and Obama adopting a cooler approach designed to show calm in the midst of crisis while preferring to give long-distance encouragement to all parties in the talks.

Partisan lines hardened quickly after McCain's statement.

Republican leaders rallied around McCain. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said the decision to suspend campaigning and lend a hand to the negotiations in Washington was "the greatest single act of responsibility ever taken by a presidential candidate." He said it rivaled Dwight Eisenhower's declaration during the 1952 campaign that he would go to Korea as president, if necessary, to help end the conflict there.

"This is the day the McCain-reform Republican Party began to truly emerge as a movement which puts country first, solutions first, and big change first," he said in a statement.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he strongly supported McCain's call for a bipartisan leadership meeting. "Given that it is only a few months before a new President takes the oath of office," he said in a statement, "it is vital that the next President play an active role in crafting this critical plan."

But privately, three Republican strategists were sharply critical, viewing McCain's decision as a high-risk move that entails uncertain negotiations in Washington at the possible expense of a debate they believe McCain badly needs to get back on the offensive. One strategist called the move "desperate and nuts," and another said in an e-mail, "I don't get it at all."

All spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to criticize McCain publicly.

Democrats denounced McCain's move as political grandstanding, and they quickly urged Obama to stay away. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), no friend of McCain's, said the country would be better served if McCain and Obama went ahead with their debate. "If that changes, we will call upon them. We need leadership, not a campaign photo op," he said in a statement.

McCain advisers dismissed Reid's statement as both raw partisanship and particularly disingenuous, coming as it did just a day after the Senate leader had urged McCain to make his views on the current financial package clear and warned him against a "no" vote that could scuttle the entire rescue.

Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) said McCain's move was motivated not by concerns about stock market declines but by the GOP nominee's sagging poll numbers. "It's not economic leadership that Senator McCain would bring to these negotiations," he said in a statement. "It's presidential politics -- which is the last thing we need if we really want to solve the serious problems our nation faces."

Democratic strategists were even sharper in their criticism. "McCain is doing this without having laid any predicate for the idea that his participation is crucial to the process," said pollster Geoff Garin. "His activity for the last seven days or more completely belies that. . . . This is not going to be seen as either an act of strength or act of confidence."

Mark Mellman, another Democratic pollster, said Wednesday's move, like McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, was a political stunt aimed at stirring up the race. "McCain thinks he learned with Palin that shaking things up when you are falling behind can pay off," he said. "It did then, albeit briefly. It won't now."

McCain is betting otherwise. On the biggest issue in the election, one that favors his rival, the Republican nominee believes he can buck the odds and produce results. It may not take long to know whether the gamble paid off.

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