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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.

On a conference call with reporters, Schmidt vented his rage, calling the Times "a pro-Obama advocacy organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign."

Two days later, a national poll by The Washington Post and ABC News brought more bad news: a nine-point lead for Obama, the biggest since the two officially became their parties' nominees.

But the return to Washington on Thursday brought a new low for the campaign. The White House meeting McCain had called for devolved into dissension and argument. One McCain adviser said the senator walked into a Democratic "buzz saw."

McCain's ability to reach across the aisle and bring his colleagues to consensus -- something he brags about repeatedly on the campaign trail -- appeared to have vanished Thursday.

"Thursday was a disaster," said a top aide who had been part of the planning. "The vision on Wednesday did not play out as we thought."

Throughout the day, Democrats held one news conference after another to denounce McCain as the agent of the chaos, accusing him of instigating the collapse of talks that had seemed close.

At the same time, Democrats and Republicans alike described McCain as oddly quiet at the White House, a far cry from the hard-charging senator who was at the center of debates over detainee torture and judges.

No one stood up for McCain, with Republicans on the Hill offering faint praise at best for their nominee. Later, aides said McCain was purposely quiet. "In a meeting characterized by finger-pointing and partisan divides, he chose not to engage in an unproductive conversation," one senior adviser said.

McCain returned to his Crystal City condominium at 6:30 p.m. and spent some time preparing for a debate that he wasn't sure he would attend.

At 11 p.m. Holtz-Eakin returned to campaign headquarters after talks broke down again. A colleague described him as "a beaten man" as both watched the grim news play across the cable television channels.

But by the time McCain woke up Friday morning, he and his top advisers had reassessed the need for the senator's ongoing presence in the negotiations.

In the wake of Thursday's "disaster," McCain was no longer interested in remaining locked in negotiations. He spent only 90 minutes on Capitol Hill on Friday, most of it in conversations with House Republicans, trying to persuade them to rejoin talks with Democrats.

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