IJohn McCain called Wednesday for the first presidential debate, scheduled for Friday in Mississippi, to be delayed and urged Barack Obama to join him in Washington for a high-level meeting of congressional leaders to address the financial crisis.
In a political roll of the dice that jolted the presidential race, McCain said in New York today that he is suspending his campaign as of Thursday and will return on Washington.
"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. "It is time for both parties to come together to solve this problem."
Obama had no immediate official response, but aides said he was "inclined" to go forward with the debate. Aides also quickly countered that their campaign had first reached out to McCain - early Wednesday morning - to suggest that the two nominees put out a joint statement on the crisis that has roiled economic markets and brought Washington to a virtual standstill.
"At 8:30 this morning, Senator Obama called Senator McCain to ask him if he would join in issuing a joint statement outlining their shared principles and conditions for the Treasury proposal and urging Congress and the White House to act in a bipartisan manner to pass such a proposal," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton in an email sent just minutes after McCain's statement. "At 2:30 this afternoon, Senator McCain returned Senator Obama’s call and agreed to join him in issuing such a statement. The two campaigns are currently working together on the details."
The financial crisis already had all but hijacked the presidential contest, but McCain's startling statment brought the race to a standing stop.
McCain said his goal was to have a bailout package in place by the start of next week - though in Congress, members from both parties suggested that a summit attended by both nominees would slow the sense of progress toward a bailout deal that had built throughout the day on Wednesday.
"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," McCain predicted. "All we must do to achieve this is temporarily set politics aside, and I am committed to doing so."
McCain compared the financial crisis to 9/11, saying national leaders must work together to find a solution.
"We must show that kind of patriotism now," McCain said. .
His action Wednesday was an extraordinary move, plainly aimed at appearing presidential and above the partisan fray at a time of great challenge. But, coming a week after McCain struggled to find his footing on the crisis and as national and state polls show him slipping in large part because of voter concerns over the economy, it also amounts to a dare: How can Obama say no?
Were the Democrat to insist on going forward with the debate and to continue to campaign as usual he'd walk right into McCain's trap, seeming to place politics above what many are portraying as a dire national crisis and validating the Arizona senator's slogan that it's he who puts "country first."
McCain's move is also designed to recast the financial debate as it relates to the presidential campaign. Since last week, the Republican and his top aides have sought to broaden the discussion beyond the details of just what went wrong and how to fix the system and make the political question one of who is the better leader in a time of great national challenge. With a Republican president in the White House presiding over the near-meltdown and voters favoring Obama on the economy, transforming the matter from one about policy to one about character and leadership is imperative.