Two days before a widely anticipated presidential debate, John McCain said Wednesday he would skip the session and stay in Washington to work on the nation’s financial crisis. Barack Obama ignored McCain’s invitation to join him and said he would show up for the debate as planned.
“We must meet as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, and we must meet until this crisis is resolved,” McCain said in a statement that set off a daylong flurry of political positioning on both sides. McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, also planned to suspend advertising, party fundraising and any campaign appearances.
Obama rejected McCain’s call to suspend presidential politicking less than six weeks before election day. “It’s my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who, in approximately 40 days, will be responsible for dealing with this mess,” Obama told reporters at a news conference in Florida. “It’s going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”
An Obama spokesman indicated that the Illinois senator would travel to the Mississippi debate site regardless of McCain’s attendance. “My sense is there’s going to be a stage, a moderator, an audience and at least one presidential candidate,” Robert Gibbs said.
The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates and the University of Mississippi, host of the forum, also issued statements declaring their intention to proceed as planned. “We believe the public will be well-served by having the debates go forward as scheduled,” the commission said in its statement. A spokesman declined to speculate on what would happen if only Obama showed up.
The move by the Arizona senator was unprecedented in the 20 years the commission -- co-chaired by former heads of the national Republican and Democratic parties -- has overseen the presidential and vice presidential debates. The panel was established to remove political brinkmanship from debate negotiations, and until Wednesday, the talks this year seemed to go particularly smoothly.
Asked how a solo Obama appearance would come off, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said that would depend on events. “If there is no good reason for a U.S. senator who is not on any relevant committees to be in D.C. . . . you have one scenario,” Jamieson said. “If it looks as though Sen. McCain is playing some role in brokering something and, as a result, he’s doing something important in D.C., you have an entirely different scenario.”
The prospect of postponing Friday’s debate rankled network executives, who have invested substantial resources in the infrastructure needed to carry the event live. Finding another block of TV time would be difficult. The coming month is crowded with fall television premiers, National Football League games and Major League Baseball playoffs.
“Every network in America has that time laid out,” Fox News anchor Shepard Smith said on the air Wednesday.
“There are thousands of people en route to Oxford, Miss., at this point. For seven months they’ve been working on this.”
Times staff writers Bob Drogin, Michael Finnegan and Matea Gold contributed to this report.