Democrats had dared Sen. John McCain to show leadership on the Wall Street crisis and he stepped up. He put his campaign on hold Wednesday and challenged Sen. Barack Obama to postpone Friday’s debate, which Democrats had hoped to turn into a forum on failed Republican economic policies.
Less than a month after he canceled the first night of the Republican National Convention, Mr. McCain again flashed his signature maverick style, declaring President Bush’s proposed $700 billion bailout dead and, as he’s done so often in the past, said he could help broker a bipartisan deal to cut through the political clutter.
Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama refused to cancel the debate, but Wednesday night accepted an invitation from President Bush to a bipartisan summit on the economic bailout package that also will include Mr. McCain and other top members of Congress and the administration.
In rejecting Mr. McCain’s debate postponement, Mr. Obama said the Republican showed his own limits rather than real leadership.
“It is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once,” Mr. Obama told reporters in Florida. “If it turns out that we need to be in Washington, we’ve both got big planes - we’ve painted our slogans on the side of them - they can get us from Washington, D.C., to Mississippi fairly quickly.”
Mr. Obama’s campaign said he called Mr. McCain at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, proposing a joint statement on the economic situation. The two men again spoke privately at 2:30 p.m., but minutes later, Mr. McCain then went much further and told reporters that he wanted to postpone all politicking.
The McCain campaign said last night that Mr. Obama’s refusal would not affect their plans. The Arizona senator announced that he was canceling his political commercials and would return to Washington after a final nonpartisan speech Thursday to the Clinton Global Initiative. He also said he was suspending fundraising, though the link on his Web site for contributions to his campaign compliance fund still worked Wednesday night.
Mr. McCain said top leaders from both parties should meet and hammer out details of a bill that that they would then present to their colleagues as the best solution possible - exactly the way he has crafted deals on other major issues, such as judicial nominees and immigration.
“I am confident that before the markets open on Monday, we can achieve consensus on legislation that will stabilize our financial markets, protect taxpayers and homeowners, and earn the confidence of the American people,” he said. “All we must do to achieve this is temporarily set politics aside, and I am committed to doing so.”
It’s the second time in less than a month that he’s tried to show leadership by canceling a political event. Just weeks ago, he pulled commercials and scrapped most of the first day of the Republican National Convention, saying he didn’t want to distract from the relief efforts surrounding Hurricane Gustav.
Earlier this month, when the candidates had a one-day campaign break to commemorate the 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. McCain blamed the nasty tone of the campaign on Mr. Obama, saying it would have been more agreeable had the Democrat agreed to his town hall invitations.
The McCain team said returning to Washington and suspending his campaign was an easy decision.
“[We] got in a position where, you know, the Democrats were warily circling McCain: ‘not going to commit to a deal unless McCain does.’ It was just a time for leadership. So he just stepped up,” said a McCain campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
But the move also comes as Mr. McCain is slipping in the polls and struggling to find his voice on the economy, and Democrats said it was little more than a stunt.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had dared Mr. McCain to take control of the debate, telling reporters: “We need, now, the Republicans to start producing some votes for us. We need the Republican nominee for president to let us know where he stands and what we should do.”
By Wednesday, though, Mr. Reid had apparently changed his mind. He said the debate should go on and said: “It would not be helpful at this time to have them come back during these negotiations and risk injecting presidential politics into this process or distract important talks about the future of our nation’s economy.”
At an evening news conference, the Nevada Democrat was even more pointed, saying, “It appears to me that John McCain is trying to divert attention to his failing campaign. Coming back here is not going to add to the process.”
Congressional Democrats are tweaking Mr. Bush’s bailout proposal, arguing that the price tag is too big and that it turns over too much control to the Treasury Department secretary, who would be allowed to buy bad assets from troubled companies.
Mr. McCain has refused to take a position on Mr. Bush’s proposal, instead laying out principles for a final bill.
Mr. Obama already had limited his campaign stumping this week in favor of debate preparation, while Mr. McCain had a more full schedule of events. But Mr. McCain’s staff said that he had been preparing and that this was not an effort to duck the debate.
The nonpartisan group that hosts the debates said Friday’s foreign policy-focused meeting between the two major party nominees would continue as planned at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, and university officials said they were proceeding as planned.
Mr. Obama said that if congressional leaders need him for a close vote or if they need him to “be helpful, then I can be prepared to be anywhere at any time.”
He said he was wary of “infusing” presidential politics on Capitol Hill. He added that he’d spoken with Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican whom he considers a friend, and said Mr. Coburn suggested a joint statement would be useful.
But Republicans said the presidential candidates should not politicize the debate and said Mr. McCain deserved credit for putting his campaign on the line again.
“This business is all about risk, unless you do nothing. John has always been a risk-taker, but not a foolish one. This is a time for leadership in our country,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican.
By rejecting Mr. McCain’s offer, Mr. Obama may have saved the Republican from being tied to a Democrat-written package that could emerge from congressional negotiations.
Both men have missed substantial numbers of Senate votes this year as they have campaigned across the country. Mr. Obama last voted in July; Mr. McCain’s last vote was in April.
Mr. Obama said there are areas where the presidential rivals agree, such as oversight and making sure the taxpayers get as much of their money back as possible.
“We agreed that this was a critical time for everyone,” he said.
Mr. Obama said that Mr. McCain suggested a joint meeting in Washington, but Mr. Obama said the joint statement should come first as a “clear signal.” He said he had the impression that Mr. McCain was “mulling over” delaying the debate, but that by the time he returned to his hotel after a rally, “he had gone on television” to call for the delay.
“Apparently [he was] more decisive about it in his own mind,” Mr. Obama said.
S.A. Miller in Washington and Joseph Curl in New York contributed to this report.