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

Sen. Barack Obama, campaigning in Dunedin, Fla., said, "It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."
Sen. Barack Obama, campaigning in Dunedin, Fla., said, "It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once." (By Jason Reed -- Reuters)
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.

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