NEW YORK Republican John McCain said Wednesday that he wants to postpone Friday's debate to deal with the nation's financial problems, but Democrat Barack Obama said "it's more important than ever" that the country hear from its next president.
The White House rivals maneuvered to claim the leadership role on the financial crisis that has overshadowed their campaign, leaving the question of whether they will hold their first debate in doubt. Obama said he would continue ahead with his debate preparations, while McCain said he would stop all advertising, fundraising and other campaign events to return to Washington and work for a bipartisan solution.
"It's my belief that 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," Obama said at a news conference in Clearwater, Fla. "It's going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."
Their dueling positions came after the two senators spoke privately, each trying to portray himself as the bipartisan leader at a time of crisis.
But McCain beat Obama to the punch with the first public statement, saying the Bush administration's Wall Street $700 billion bailout proposal seemed headed for defeat and a bipartisan solution was urgently needed. If not, McCain said ominously, credit will dry up, people will no longer be able to buy homes, life savings will be at stake and businesses will not have enough money to pay workers.
"It has become clear that no consensus has developed to support the administration's proposal," McCain said. "I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time."
McCain said he had spoken to President Bush and asked him to convene a leadership meeting in Washington that would include him and Obama.
Even as McCain said he was putting the good of the country ahead of politics, his surprise announcement was clearly political. It was an attempt to try to out-maneuver Obama on an issue he's trailing on, the economy, as the Democrat gains in polls. He swiftly went before TV cameras minutes after speaking with Obama and before the two campaigns had hammered out a joint statement expressing that Congress act urgently on the bailout.
And while McCain's campaign said he would "suspend" his campaign, it simply will move to Washington knowing the spotlight will remain on him no matter where he is.
Obama repeatedly stressed at his news conference that he called McCain first to propose that they issue a joint statement in support of a package to help fix the economy as soon as possible. He said McCain called back several hours later, as Obama was leaving a rally in Florida, and agreed to the idea of a statement but also said he wanted to postpone the debate and hold joint meetings in Washington.
Obama said he suggested they first issue a joint statement showing bipartisanship.
"When I got back to the hotel, he had gone on television to announce what he was going to do," Obama said.