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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

McCain's task is to get back on track

He ends a confusing and dramatic detour to Washington that left supporters angry and critics wondering.

September 29, 2008|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential nominee John McCain returns to the trail today after a dramatic but rocky four-day detour that upended his campaign, upset supporters and gave new ammunition to critics who question his judgment.

McCain will appear at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, in hopes of regaining the momentum he lost when he abruptly canceled campaign events and returned here Thursday to try to broker a $700-billion bailout of the crippled financial industry.

The Arizona senator's unilateral cease-fire carried a clear cost, aides now concede, acknowledging that polls show Democratic nominee Barack Obama with a widening lead. Pulling most of McCain's TV ads off the air for several days also left him "naked" to Obama's broadsides, the aides said.

Some McCain supporters question why he made his own campaign hostage to a highly charged legislative process that he did not control. He does not sit on a Senate committee that is directly involved with the crisis, and he became inextricably linked to a Wall Street bailout that is unpopular with many voters.

Worse, McCain's campaign assumed an air of barely controlled chaos for four days as frustrated staffers tore up schedules, scrapped speeches and rallies, and scrambled to make contingency plans that seemed to change hour by hour.

"It was all very dramatic, but maybe the American public is tired of drama after the last eight years," said John Weaver, McCain's former campaign manager. "John needs to demonstrate he has a steady hand. He needs to be a bit more measured."

Supporters also criticized McCain's call last week to cancel the first presidential debate with Obama unless negotiators struck a bailout deal by Friday night. McCain backed down at the last minute and agreed to participate without a deal, but he departed Washington so suddenly Friday afternoon that he left most of his traveling press behind.

After arriving in Mississippi, he decided to return to the capital immediately after the debate. His late-night flight landed at 3:15 a.m. Saturday. Later that day, he made 17 phone calls from his campaign office to White House and congressional leaders, but did not take part in the late-night negotiations that finally hammered out the proposed accord.

McCain also did not head to the Senate floor Saturday to vote on a $634-billion bill to fund the government for the next five months. He had denounced the measure during the debate because it was packed with more than 2,000 "earmarks," pet projects sought by lawmakers for their home districts and states.

The bill also lifted a long-term congressional ban on offshore oil drilling and included billions of dollars to subsidize loans to the auto industry. McCain strongly supports lifting the drilling ban and providing federal aid to the auto giants.

Appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week," McCain said he had been too busy "working on all the other stuff" to cast a vote. Asked if he would have voted against it, McCain said he would have tried to cut the "outrageous pork-barrel spending" in the bill, but "probably would have ended up voting for it."

Obama, who campaigned Saturday in North Carolina and Virginia, also missed the vote.

McCain also defended his decision to become so personally involved in the bailout debate. "I did the best that I could," he said. "I came back because I wasn't going to phone it in. And America's in a crisis of almost unprecedented proportions. I should be doing whatever little I can to help this process."

His running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, offered stronger support for his actions. "I'm glad that John McCain's voice was heard," she told reporters during a stop at a coffee shop in Philadelphia.

Palin will join McCain for the rally in Ohio. She then heads to McCain's desert compound in Sedona, Ariz., where she will spend three days preparing for her debate Thursday in St. Louis with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, was uncertain whether McCain would return to vote on the bailout bill. "It's impossible to know until the vote has been announced," he said.

Obama, appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation," argued that he deserved more credit than McCain for the bailout agreement.

Like McCain, he attended an economic summit at the White House on Thursday and spoke by phone regularly over the last two weeks with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and congressional leaders.

Obama said he helped ensure that the accord provides increased oversight, relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, and other provisions to protect taxpayers. "I was pushing very hard and involved in shaping those provisions," he said.

Later, at a rally in Detroit, the Democrat assailed what he described as McCain's erratic response to the nation's financial turmoil, an unsubtle attempt to suggest his competitor may have the wrong temperament to be president.

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