The first general election debate remained in limbo Friday, just hours before John McCain and Barack Obama were scheduled to appear on stage together at the University of Mississippi, with McCain’s camp continuing to send mixed signals about whether the Republican nominee intended to participate in the high-stakes forum.
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. And it remained that way after negotiations over a $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan broke down Thursday and late-night talks ended inconclusively.
McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt said Thursday night that the Arizona senator was focused on passing a compromise bailout bill and would be on the phone, cajoling colleagues and trying to get closer to a deal.
“He’s working very, very hard to try to get majority votes,” Schmidt said.
In a Thursday interview with ABC News, McCain 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 McCain 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.
At the same time speculation swirled about McCain’s possible absence, there were also signs that the Republican nominee was preparing for a trip to Oxford.
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 eletion 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.