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Originally published September 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 25, 2008 at 8:57 AM

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Candidates locked in debate over debate

John McCain shook up the presidential campaign Wednesday, announcing that he will suspend campaigning today to work on the Wall Street bailout legislation and urging that the first presidential debate with rival Barack Obama be delayed.

WASHINGTON — John McCain shook up the presidential campaign Wednesday, announcing that he will suspend campaigning today to work on the Wall Street bailout legislation and urging that the first presidential debate with rival Barack Obama be delayed.

Obama rejected the proposal, however, and said he still planned to attend the Friday night debate in Oxford, Miss. "My sense is there's going to be a stage, a moderator, an audience and at least one presidential candidate," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates and forum host, the University of Mississippi, issued statements declaring their intention to proceed as planned.

The McCain campaign floated the idea of holding the first debate next Thursday in St. Louis, using the slot set aside for the vice-presidential debate. It was unclear whether that would mean there would be two, rather than three, presidential debates.

It also wasn't clear if or when a debate would take place between Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joseph Biden.

Rescheduling Friday's debate could create havoc for television coverage.

Obama stopped short of suggesting that McCain was playing politics, but noted with a glint of humor that both men were capable of engaging in the debate and negotiations in Congress at the same time.

"If it turns out that we need to be in Washington, we've both got big planes — we've painted our slogans on the sides of them," Obama said. "They can get us from Washington, D.C., to Mississippi fairly quickly."

Obama also took a veiled swipe at McCain for the implied suggestion that the candidates can handle only one thing at a time.

"Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time," Obama said. "It's not necessary for us to think that we can only do one thing and suspend everything else."

McCain's move 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.

Two commission members noted that past debates had been held during moments of crisis, such as the attack on the USS Cole during the 2000 debates.

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Still, McCain's decision offered 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.

If the move fails, it could be seen as a desperate gimmick, raise questions about whether McCain is prone to rash decisions and reinforce Obama's image as the more coolheaded, deliberate leader.

"There is a risk there," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "There is the potential that [McCain will] seem a little hasty in his actions, that people will think this guy just flies off the handle, that he can't multitask."

McCain announced his decision 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."

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. Hours later, both candidates accepted Bush's invitation to address the crisis in a White House meeting today.

McCain's actions not only cast doubt on whether the much anticipated debate would come off, but also thrust an unpredictable new element into bailout negotiations.

Neither McCain nor Obama sits on the Senate Banking Committee, which is conducting the chamber's negotiations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said neither should return to Washington and inject presidential politics into the negotiations. "We need leadership, not a photo op," he said in a statement.

But Republicans, eager for political cover on a bailout proposal that members of both parties see as deeply unpopular in the country, embraced McCain's return.

"I strongly support Senator McCain's proposal for a bipartisan leadership meeting of both houses of Congress, including Senator McCain and Senator Obama," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Nevertheless, faced with the prospect of McCain trying to claim credit for negotiating a bailout deal, Boehner and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a joint statement saying they already have made bipartisan progress.

"Our shared goal is to make the proposal more accountable to taxpayers," they said. "Working in a bipartisan manner, we have made progress. We agree that key changes should be made to the administration's initial proposal."

The prospect of a postponed debate rankled TV executives, who have invested substantial resources in the infrastructure to carry the event live. Finding another block of TV time would be difficult. The coming month is crowded with TV premieres, NFL games and Major League Baseball playoffs.

"There are thousands of people en route to Oxford, Miss., at this point. For seven months they've been working on this," Fox News anchor Shepard Smith said.

Compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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