- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

UPDATED:

Both presidential camps said Friday morning they are hopeful the first debate between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain would take place later in the evening, despite uncertain Congressional negotiations over the Wall Street bailout.

Mr. Obama’s team insisted he would be flying to Mississippi around the lunch hour, and chief strategist Robert Gibbs said the Democratic nominee will stand on the debate stage “whether or not John McCain shows up.”

McCain surrogates appearing on MSNBC said they were hopeful a deal would be reached allowing the Republican nominee to attend the debate and indicated they believe it will get worked out at some point Friday.

“John McCain really wants to be there tonight,” supporter Sen. Joe Lieberman said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham made similar remarks but added Mr. McCain thinks a debate is less important than rescuing the nation from “financial Pearl Harbor.”

“I think we are very close to some common ground that will protect the taxpayer,” he said, a hint that Mr. McCain would attend the debate.

Network anchors and political pundits already on the ground in Oxford, Miss., said moderator Jim Lehrer was certain to ask economic questions despite the set foreign policy focus.

MSNBC political director Chuck Todd said if Mr. McCain does not attend, the organizers were prepared to hold “some sort of town hall” but predicted such a gathering would not be televised.

Mr. Gibbs mocked Mr. McCain’s Wednesday call to “suspend” the campaign and head to Washington to help broker a deal, noting that the Arizona senator remained in New York for nearly 24 hours after the announcement and that by the time he reached the nation’s capital, some lawmakers said an agreement had been reached.

“You could pedal from New York to Washington in faster periods of time,” he said, calling Mr. McCain’s visit to the White House a “political stunt.”

When Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama met at the White House Thursday, the real deal makers said their presence wasn’t needed, leaving the bailout on the verge of collapse.

Congressional leaders said Friday morning they were still hammering out a compromise but would not guarantee something would pass by even the end of the weekend.

On Thursday after the White House meeting, Mr. Obama called for the debate to continue Friday night as planned but said the White House hopefuls should be “very careful in terms of how we inject ourselves into this process.”

Mr. McCain said in a series of network interviews he was “hopeful” he would be at the debate Friday, though he had previously said he would not attend if there was no deal. The Arizona Republican also said he was “suspending” his campaign even though he appeared at former President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative meeting in New York and continued to offer online fundraising and keep an active campaign Web site.

His running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, held a rally in Pennsylvania as well and his campaign offices remained open and encouraged campaign work in swing states.

The Obama campaign lashed out, saying in a memo Thursday, “Make no mistake: John McCain did not ‘suspend’ his campaign,” and dismissing the dramatic move as a “political stunt.”

Mr. McCain held firm, telling networks’ reporters he feels he must set aside politics to help the deal pass.

If it hurts his candidacy, which has been slipping in national and battleground state polls this week, “I’ll gladly take the penalty,” he said.

Mr. Obama told reporters the day proved that “injecting presidential politics” is not always helpful and creates the “potential for posturing.”

He said the most important thing he and his rival could do Friday would be to go to Mississippi for the debate “and explain our vision of where the economy needs to go,” because “one of us is going to be in charge of this mess in four months.”

Mr. McCain’s push to delay the first presidential debate ensures if it does take place, the nation’s money woes aren’t likely to be ignored during what was supposed to exclusively be a foreign-policy forum.

The power play also forced Mr. Obama to scrap more than a day’s worth of debate preparation as he trekked to the White House.

Mr. Obama left his bunker in Clearwater, Fla., in the early afternoon for the meeting, traveling with a Senate aide and leaving his political strategists behind in Florida, along with top adviser Greg Craig who had been acting as a McCain stand-in for the mock debate sessions.

But organizers went ahead with their plans as if nothing had happened, constructing the stage at the University of Mississippi and welcoming network news anchors to town.

Debate moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS arrived in Oxford on Tuesday and has “his questions in hand” and closely guarded, a spokeswoman said.

“All will go as normal until somebody does or does not show up,” said Anne Bell of PBS.

Meanwhile, Capitol Hill Democrats excoriated Mr. McCain as grandstanding.

“This was theater for the last two hours,” Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, said after leaving the White House.

Shortly before Mr. Dodd made his comments, Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama and congressional leaders huddled without reaching an agreement, or, according to people in the room, without even negotiating.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand what was going on down there,” Mr. Dodd said. “It was basically a photo opportunity for John McCain.”

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