WASHINGTON - Republican John McCain agreed to attend the first presidential debate Friday night even though Congress doesn't have a bailout deal, reversing an earlier decision to delay the event until Washington had taken action to address the crisis.
With less than 10 hours until the debate was scheduled to start, the McCain campaign announced that the Arizona senator would travel to the University of Mississippi. The campaign said that afterward McCain would return to Washington to continue working on the financial crisis.
Obama had always planned to attend the debate and was aboard his plane preparing to take off when McCain's announcement was made. McCain quickly moved to his own private aircraft and headed South with his wife and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his wife, Judith, on board.
The action contradicted the position McCain had taken Wednesday, when he announced, "I'm 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 had also said he would suspend all campaign activities, but in reality the campaign just shifted to Washington while the work of trying to win the election went on.
McCain had taken a gamble with the move, trying to appear above politics and as a leader on an issue that had overshadowed the presidential campaign and given him trouble. But Democratic rival Barack Obama had not bowed to McCain's challenge, and instead questioned why the Republican nominee couldn't handle two things at once — the debate and involvement in the bailout negotiations.
An Associated Press-Knowledge Networks poll out Friday just before McCain's announcement showed the public overwhelmingly wanted the candidates to debate, 60 percent to 22 percent, with the rest undecided.
By Friday morning, it appeared McCain was looking for a face-saving way to get to the debate even though a deal had not been reached. He met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, before heading to his campaign headquarters and issuing a statement that blamed others in Washington for the failure to reach an agreement.
"John McCain's decision to suspend his campaign was made in the hopes that politics could be set aside to address our economic crisis," the statement said. "In response, Americans saw a familiar spectacle in Washington. At a moment of crisis that threatened the economic security of American families, Washington played the blame game rather than work together to find a solution that would avert a collapse of financial markets without squandering hundreds of billions of taxpayers' money to bail out bankers and brokers who bet their fortunes on unsafe lending practices."
Just before McCain's announcement, Obama told reporters that he had spent Friday morning on the phone with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and congressional leaders and he was optimistic that progress was being made toward a bailout deal.
"At this point, my strong sense is that the best thing that I can do, rather than to inject presidential politics into these delicate negotiations, is to go down to Mississippi and explain to the American people what is going on and my vision for leading the country over the next four years," Obama told reporters aboard his campaign plane as they prepared to travel to Mississippi.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a McCain supporter, said the Republican made a "huge mistake" by even discussing canceling the debate.
"You can't just say, 'World, stop for a moment. I'm going to cancel everything,'" Huckabee told reporters Thursday night in Alabama before attending a benefit for the University of Mobile. He said it's more important for voters to hear from the presidential candidates than for them to huddle with fellow senators in Washington.
Both McCain and Obama had returned to Washington on Thursday at the urging of President Bush, who invited them to a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House. But a session aimed at showing unity in resolving the financial crisis broke up with conflicts in plain view.
McCain's campaign said the meeting "devolved into a contentious shouting match" and implied Obama was at fault — on a day when McCain said he was putting politics aside to focus on the nation's financial problems.
Democrats differed, saying the refusal of McCain and other Republicans to support the plan worked out by congressional negotiators was creating a road block.
"The insertion of presidential politics has not been helpful," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday.
When asked whether the meeting was a mistake, Obama replied, "I'm not sure it was as productive as it could have been. I think at this point it's important to just move forward."