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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

On a day of dizzying one-upmanship, Obama rejects McCain's call to postpone their debate.

September 25, 2008|Peter Wallsten and Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — 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.

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