McCain was going to his Senate office this morning, and his traveling staff and press corps were prepared to fly to Oxford, Miss. later today for the 9 p.m. ET debate. No departure is being confirmed.
On Thursday night, McCain and his staff had left open the possibility to follow through on his vow to boycott the University of Mississippi debate if a deal was not locked down.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), McCain’s closest ally on Capitol Hill, suggested on morning shows that McCain will go to the debate with as little as “an outline or a proposal” pending.
“I think we are very close to some common ground that will protect the taxpayer," Graham said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Graham said on NBC’s “Today” show: “What's more important than anything is that when we go to Mississippi tonight, both candidates can say that the Congress is working, back in business, that we have an outline or proposal that will protect the taxpayer and save the country from financial Pearl Harbor, as Warren Buffett called it. We are not there yet, but we will get there.”
McCain was positioning himself to take credit for a deal after attendees at Thursday’s White House summit were left baffled by his noncommittal approach.
“The key thing is that there is no deal – Senator McCain is working to get one,” a top campaign official said. “He is talking to everyone — Administration, Senate, House, Ds, Rs, [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson, [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke, etc.”
A House Republican leadership aide said McCain’s staff is “acting sort of as a go-between between the White House and the House, trying to push negotiations along.”
“They want a deal but I haven't felt pushed,” the aide said. “They seem okay with our position. But anyone who gets the fact that there were not enough votes for Paulson, knows that House GOP is being scapegoated by Dems for 'blowing' up a non-existent deal. It is weird that campaign staff is negotiating legislation, but they are doing a good job.”
Another leadership aide said McCain was pressing House Republicans to support the deal.
“We’ve worked very closely with the McCain camp over the last four to five months and I think he understands our concerns with the underlying proposal, and probably shares some of them,” the second aide said. “But I think he genuinely wants to play a constructive role in brokering something that all members can support. “
Since Wednesday, when McCain unexpectedly announced he would suspend his campaign to focus on the economic crisis, it has been unclear whether McCain would join Obama at the debate. While Graham's comments this morning suggest McCain is looking to attend even if a deal hasn't been locked in, McCain, in a Thursday interview with ABC News, tried to downplay the significance of the first debate, possibly laying the groundwork for a decision to formally withdraw from the event.
“I understand that there is a lot of attention on this but I also wish Sen. Obama had agreed to 10 or more town hall meetings that I had asked him to attend with me,” McCain said. “Wouldn’t be quite that much urgency if he agreed to do that. Instead, he refused to do it.”
After spending most of Tuesday and Wednesday in debate preparations near Tampa, Fla., Obama and his campaign left little room for doubt about whether he would be in Oxford, Miss., on Friday night.
Obama’s aides said he was moving ahead with their plans for the debate and at a Thursday evening press conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, Obama reiterated his call for MCain to appear with him on Friday.
“My hope is that the debate goes forward,” Obama said. “I intend to be there.”
“I believe the most important thing that John McCain and I can do tomorrow, in addition to continuing to monitor the situation and talking to congressional leaders and the administration, is to go to Mississippi for 90 minutes, go in front of the American people and explain our vision of where the economy needs to go,” he continued.
Obama also modified his schedule in response to ongoing bailout negotiations. Initially, he was scheduled to return to Florida Thursday night. Around 5:30 PM his campaign decided to stay in Washington instead.
The Democratic nominee’s traveling press corps, however, was sent to Memphis, Tenn. – the closest airport to the debate site in Mississippi.
Obama said he didn't think McCain was ducking the debate.
"Well you know Sen. McCain has no reason to be fearful about a debate. He’s got his personal strong opinions and you know he’s been expressing them on the campaign trail. This does give us an opportunity to go back and forth."
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and an influential GOP figure, said Thursday he anticipated the debate would take place.
“This is going to be a great debate tomorrow night and we’re excited about it,” Barbour said.
After attending, along with Obama, Thursday’s White House meeting with President Bush, McCain returned to his Virginia home early in the evening.
His campaign staff notified pool reporters to prepare for an 8:30AM baggage call – “JUST IN CASE,” wrote McCain aide Brian Rogers.
Advance staffs for both campaigns participated in a walk-through of the debate site on Thursday night, as did debate moderator Jim Lehrer.
The high level of interest in this year’s election has led to speculation that the television audience could exceed the record-high 80.6 million who watched the October 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
McCain already dedicated a substantial amount of time to prepare for the debate last weekend, and cut short an appearance at a Naval Academy football game in order to get himself ready.
But if the two candidates do face each other Friday night, the market meltdown makes it likely they will spend some time discussing the economy, despite the previously agreed-upon topics of national security and foreign affairs.
“I am not restrained from asking questions about the financial crisis,” Lehrer told the New York Times Thursday in an e-mail message.
Carrie Budoff Brown, Amie Parnes and Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.