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For McCain, Days of Chaos, Improvisation and Drama

Republican presidential candidate John McCain campaigns in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Meanwhile, running mate Sarah Palin visits with world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008

The brain trust of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign knew three things as their motorcade lurched through Manhattan traffic on the way to the Morgan Library and Museum on Wednesday afternoon for what was supposed to be two hours of intensive debate preparation.

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They knew that their candidate faced slumping public poll numbers and a fresh media assault about his top campaign aide's connection to the mortgage industry. They knew that time was running out to get McCain ready for a debate on Friday in Mississippi.

And they knew that the economic bailout plan on Capitol Hill was becoming a crisis. For 24 hours, it was all McCain focused on, calling congressional colleagues, conferring with his staffers and watching as his campaign was flooded with angry comments from members of the public who opposed the $700 billion rescue package.

Wednesday morning was the last straw. A group of economic advisers privately told McCain that the situation was more dire than he realized. "They basically said, 'John, you're running for president. Can't you do something?' " said one participant in the meeting.

The 90 minutes inside the library was supposed to have been a formal rehearsal. Instead, there was chaos.

McCain frantically dialed his Senate aides, seeking the latest on the bailout negotiations, while his top lieutenants -- Mark Salter, Rick Davis, Steve Schmidt and Charlie Black -- scrambled to engineer one of the most unprecedented moments in presidential election history: McCain's declaration that he would "suspend" his campaign and seek to delay Friday's debate.

McCain had raised the possibility of returning to Washington the night before, during somber briefings by senior economic adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin in McCain's New York Hilton hotel room.

Now, he was in full Senator McCain mode, say those around him, convinced that his presence in Washington could help avert a financial crisis while showcasing his reputation for bipartisanship and his ability to make things happen. Aides warned of the political risk -- there was no guarantee that he could make things better -- but McCain waved them off.

"We are in an unprecedented situation," Schmidt told reporters moments after McCain made his four-minute statement. "Senator McCain is doing what he believes is the right and appropriate thing to do here."

The decision to confront the economic crisis with a dramatic gesture was vintage McCain -- bold, swaggering, surprising -- and held out the possibility of a game-changing moment as a political byproduct. But it also highlighted the differences with Barack Obama's calm and steady campaign. McCain seemed to be lurching from one strategy to the next, defensively reacting to events while trying to regain his footing on a subject that had been difficult for him.

It was as if all of his election-year demons were haunting him at the same time: more attacks on his top aides, bad poll numbers that drag down enthusiasm and a return to a subject that has bedeviled him.

An article in the New York Times on Monday raised anew the matter of Davis's ties to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac just as the Republican campaign was airing television ads slamming Obama for the same.

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