Faced with unfavorable odds in the presidential campaign, John McCain time and again finds a way to roll the dice.
On Wednesday, with polls showing the financial crisis eroding his standing, the Republican nominee did it again -- tearing up his campaign schedule and announcing he would return here to participate in congressional deliberations over a rescue plan.
He also called on his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, to postpone their Friday night debate and join his decision to pull down ads and halt fundraising until a deal is done -- an invitation Obama summarily rejected.
By evening, both candidates had decided to head back to Washington today to meet at the White House with President Bush and congressional leaders. It was the culmination of a dizzying day of political one-upmanship that began when Obama placed an early-morning call to McCain in hopes of forging a joint statement of shared principles.
McCain’s decision to up the ante was an audacious gambit to show leadership in a time of crisis. It drew the same kind of attention McCain received when he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and, earlier, when he retooled himself as an ally of oil drilling as gas prices soared.
Much like the Palin selection, Wednesday’s decision was made hastily, with aides scrambling to cancel McCain’s meetings and appearance on David Letterman’s show.
And, like naming a running mate untested on the national stage, it carries risks: Will voters view McCain’s move as decisive, or unsteady, or even as an overtly partisan act to gain traction on an issue that he said Wednesday should transcend partisanship?
“He hopes to assume center stage in the economic discussion for the next two days,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former congressman. “If he pulls it off, he’ll get credit both for improving the plan to the benefit of taxpayers, and for assuring its passage and saving the economy.”
Weber called it a “high-risk but potentially brilliant move.”
McCain’s moves came after two weeks in which he had struggled to gain his footing on the Wall Street meltdown. Democrats attacked him last week when he said the fundamentals of the economy were strong, while McCain, long an advocate of less government interference, tried to show support for stricter regulation.
As Washington confronted a crisis with its roots in the mismanagement of risk, it was unclear whether McCain’s maneuvering would pay off.
He tried to postpone a presidential debate that tens of millions of Americans were likely to watch. And when Obama said he would not accept the proposition, McCain risked appearing as though he was trying to wiggle out of a nationally televised debate that could have drawn added attention to an issue that many see as one of Obama’s strengths.
A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll indicates that, by a 14-point margin, voters believe Obama has better ideas for strengthening the economy.
It was not clear whether McCain would continue to insist on postponing the debate. The Commission on Presidential Debates decided the first debate would proceed, leaving Obama aides to wonder whether viewers would be treated to a one-man show.
Obama, in a news conference, tried to turn the tables and suggest that McCain would “suddenly infuse Capitol Hill with presidential politics.” And he seemed to mock him, saying that presidents “are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time. It’s not necessary for us to think that we can only do one thing and suspend everything else.”
McCain faces an uncertain reception from Capitol Hill Republicans, who are divided over whether to side with an unpopular GOP president or stand against what many see as a big-government bailout.
By the time Bush finished his address to the nation late Wednesday, in which he warned of “financial panic” if a deal was not reached, it seemed that conditions would make it hard for McCain or Obama to capitalize on the crisis. Republicans and Democrats called for cooperation to complete a deal within days.
After watching venerable Wall Street firms crumble after placing bad bets on risky mortgages, Washington’s top politicians seemed to find their own version of a safe haven: a tacit agreement to spread the risk of forging a rescue plan just 40 days before a national election.
The day’s head-spinning events began about 8:30 a.m. on the East Coast, when Obama, who was campaigning in Florida, called McCain in New York to suggest that the two rivals reach agreement on a joint statement of principles for any Wall Street bailout.
McCain was meeting with economic advisors, including former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Obama left a message with his phone number.
Later in the morning, Obama spent several hours in debate preparation at his hotel in Clearwater -- keeping a phone with him in case his opponent called.
At 2:30 p.m., as Obama’s motorcade left a rally near Clearwater, McCain returned the call, and the two spoke for five minutes (according to Obama aides) or 10 minutes (according to McCain aides). In the call, McCain urged Obama to join him in suspending the campaign, postponing the debate and returning to Washington. And, his aides said, he told Obama he had urged Bush to convene a bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders and the presidential candidates, which the president eventually did much later in the day.
Obama said they should focus instead on crafting a joint statement.
Moments later, McCain’s aides abruptly summoned reporters for an urgent announcement. The candidate strode out and announced his bombshell. “It’s time for both parties to come together to solve this problem,” he said. “We must meet as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, and we must meet until this crisis is resolved.”
The news created considerable confusion within McCain’s campaign. Anxious-looking aides muttered about chaos as events in battleground states drifted into limbo.
At a 5 p.m. news conference he called to respond, Obama said he was surprised by McCain’s unilateral decision, but rejected his proposal to stopping campaigning.
“It makes sense for us to present ourselves before the American people,” he said, “to talk about the nature of the problems we’re having in our financial system and how it relates to our global standing in the world.”
By night’s end, the two candidates did issue a joint statement. It called proposed bailout “flawed,” but added: “This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country.”
But Letterman got in some of the last words on the day’s events.
Irked that McCain had canceled, Letterman repeatedly criticized him on his hourlong show. “This just doesn’t smell right. This is not the way a tested hero behaves. Somebody’s putting something in his Metamucil,” he said at one point, and later asked about the campaign: “Are we suspending it because there’s an economic crisis or because the poll numbers are sliding?”
Wallsten reported from Washington, Nicholas from Dunedin, Fla. Times staff writers Bob Drogin and Matea Gold in New York, Janet Hook in Washington and Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Joint statement from McCain, Obama
The American people are facing a moment of economic crisis. No matter how this began, we all have a responsibility to work through it and restore confidence in our economy. The jobs, savings and prosperity of the American people are at stake.
Now is a time to come together -- Democrats and Republicans -- in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the American people. The plan that has been submitted to Congress by the Bush administration is flawed, but the effort to protect the American economy must not fail.
This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe. Now is our chance to come together to prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country.