WASHINGTON — John McCain shook up the presidential campaign again on Wednesday, announcing that he'll suspend campaigning Thursday to work on the Wall Street bailout legislation and urging that the first presidential debate with rival Barack Obama be delayed.
Obama rejected that proposal and said he still planned to attend the Friday night debate in Mississippi. Debate sponsors also said it would go on as planned even if McCain’s attendance was in doubt.
But McCain’s surprise move, coming two days before the first of three long-scheduled presidential debates, offered him a high-risk chance to reshuffle the political deck heading into the final five weeks of the campaign.
If it works, he could cast himself as a decisive "presidential" leader above partisan politics, devoted to finding a solution to the crisis, eroding if not reversing the advantage that Obama has on the issue of the economy, now the top concern by far on voters’ minds.
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Yet if McCain's move fails, it could be seen as a desperate gimmick, raise questions about whether he’s prone to rash decisions and reinforce Obama's image as the more cool-headed, deliberate leader.
“There is a risk there,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. “There is the potential that he’ll seem a little hasty in his actions, that people will think this guy just flies off the handle, that he can’t multi-task.”
“It shows his concern for the economy and it shows his ability as a leader," countered Bill Dal Col, a Republican strategist and former manager of Steve Forbes’ presidential campaigns who called the gambit “brilliant.”
McCain announced his decision in a statement from New York:
“America this week faces an historic crisis in our financial system. We must pass legislation to address this crisis,” McCain said. “Tomorrow morning, I will suspend my campaign and return to Washington."
An aide said that McCain also would suspend television advertising and fundraising.
“I am directing my campaign to work with the Obama campaign and the Commission on Presidential Debates to delay Friday night's debate until we have taken action to address this crisis," McCain's statement added. ”It's time for both parties to come together to solve this problem."
McCain said that he didn’t believe the bailout would pass in the form that was proposed. He urged President Bush to convene a meeting with congressional leaders from both parties and invited Obama to join him there to help forge a bipartisan bailout solution.
Obama rejected the proposal to delay the debates, saying the Wall Street crisis underscored the need for the candidates to explain what they would do as president.
“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,” he told reporters in Clearwater, Fla., where he was preparing for the debate. It's scheduled to focus on foreign policy and national security.
Obama also took a veiled swipe at McCain for the implied suggestion that the candidates can only handle one thing at a time.
“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.”
He also noted that the candidates could easily fly back to Washington from Mississippi if needed Friday, observing that each has his own campaign plane.
“What I've told the leadership in Congress is that, if I can be helpful, then I am prepared to be anywhere, anytime. What I think is important, though, is that we don't suddenly infuse Capitol Hill with presidential politics at a time when we're in the middle of some very delicate and difficult negotiations," Obama said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement thanking McCain for his concern, but inviting him and Obama not to inject themselves into the bailout process.
"It would not be helpful at this time to have them come back during these negotiations and risk injecting presidential politics into this process or distract important talks about the future of our nation's economy. If that changes, we will call upon them."
The bailout negotiations are being led on Capitol Hill by members of the House and Senate banking committees, neither of which McCain is on. Democrats control Congress, and Reid's statement made clear that they are not inclined to let McCain take over the bailout negotiations.
In a prime-time speech Wednesday night, President Bush invited both McCain and Obama to the White House to discuss the crisis on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the host of Friday night's debate said it would go on as scheduled on Friday at 9 p.m. Eastern time.
“The University of Mississippi is going forward with the preparation for the debate. We are ready to host the debate, and we expect the debate to occur as planned,” the school said in a statement.
The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates also said it was moving forward with plans for the debate. "We believe the public will be well served by having all of the debates go forward as scheduled," the commission said in a statement.
McCain has shaken up the campaign before, including his surprise pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and his decision to cut short the opening day of the Republican National Convention and shuffle its remaining speaking schedule when Hurricane Gustav threatened New Orleans.
To Schier, it all suggests a pattern of trying to constantly stir up a race in which a Republican such as McCain faces an almost impossible landscape of an unpopular president, an unpopular war and a faltering economy.
“They see themselves in a hostile environment,” said Carleton College’s Schier. “They feel it’s up to them to continually change the game to their advantage, because if they don’t, they lose.”
(McClatchy reporter Bill Douglas contributed to this article. Thomma reported from Washington. Reinhard of the Miami Herald reported from Florida.)
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