NEW YORK The economic crisis and raw politics threatened to derail the first presidential debate as John McCain challenged Barack Obama to delay Friday's event to work on the financial crisis. Obama rebuffed the plea, saying presidents need to "deal with more than one thing at once."
The White House rivals maneuvered Wednesday to claim the leadership role in resolving the economic turmoil that has overshadowed their campaign. Obama said he would continue preparing for the debate and consulting with bailout negotiators and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. McCain said he would stop all campaigning and return to Washington today to work toward a bipartisan solution.
"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 in Clearwater, Fla. "It's going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, defended McCain's call to delay the debates in an appearance on MSNBC. "We have three senators in this (presidential) race and he seems to be the only one willing to come here and help with this problem," Hatch said.
He added, "This is the John McCain I know. He's willing to risk an election to be able to do what he thinks has to be done for the good of the country."
McCain said the candidates must focus on a bipartisan solution as the Bush administration's $700 billion bailout proposal seemed headed for defeat. If not, McCain said ominously that credit will dry up, jeopardizing home sales, individual savings and company payrolls.
"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.
Both candidates accepted President Bush's invitation to attend a White House meeting today afternoon with congressional leaders in hopes of agreeing on a rescue plan. McCain had spoken with Bush earlier Wednesday and requested such a meeting. In a joint statement Wednesday night, the candidates said the country faces "a moment of economic crisis" and they called for political unity to solve it because "the jobs, savings and the prosperity of the American people are at stake." Both said Bush's plan was "flawed."
"We cannot risk an economic catastrophe," they said. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., McCain's representative in debate negotiations, told The Associated Press that McCain will not attend the debate unless there is agreement on a solution that is publicly endorsed by Obama, McCain, the White House and congressional leaders.
Asked whether the debate could go on, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "My sense is there's going to be a stage, a moderator, an audience and at least one presidential candidate."
The jockeying between McCain and Obama began after the senators spoke privately Wednesday.
McCain beat Obama to the punch with the first public statement. The surprise announcement was an attempt to outmaneuver Obama on an issue McCain trails on and as the Democrat gains in the polls. McCain went before TV cameras minutes after they spoke and before the campaigns could hammer out the agreed-upon joint statement.
Obama, too, made a political calculation by rejecting McCain's challenge while still trying to appear on top of the problem. Obama repeatedly stressed that he called McCain first to propose a joint statement. He said McCain called back several hours later and agreed, but also said he wanted to postpone the debate and hold joint meetings in Washington. Obama said he suggested they first issue the statement.
"When I got back to the hotel, he had gone on television to announce what he was going to do," Obama said.
McCain said he would return to Washington on today after an address to former President Clinton's Global Initiative session. He canceled a scheduled appearance on CBS' "The Late Show with David Letterman" and a meeting with India's prime minister.
McCain called Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to propose that joint meetings with Obama and congressional leaders be held quickly, according to leadership aides. Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Reid responded by reading McCain his public statement, in which Reid said it would not be helpful for the candidates to come back and inject presidential politics into the negotiations.
Reid later told reporters that McCain "is trying to divert attention from his failing campaign."
Debate planners said they were continuing to prepare for the event at the University of Mississippi.
McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, was canceling her limited campaign events. She told the "CBS Evening News" that the country could be headed for another Great Depression if Congress doesn't reach a solution.
How long the suspension would last, McCain adviser Steve Schmidt would not say.
McCain has struggled with how to handle the situation, which he might escape with modest political damage if he and Obama can reach some type of accord on the matter.
Scores of congressional Republicans hinted this week that they may oppose the $700 billion proposal, and Reid pointedly suggested that Democrats could not be expected to back it if McCain did not publicly do so.
That leaves McCain with two unpalatable choices. He can oppose a major Republican initiative the administration says is needed to prevent a full-blown recession, and risk blame if the prediction comes true. Or he can vote for an extraordinarily costly bailout, which many Americans seem to resent, just when polls show him falling farther behind Obama.
Contributing: Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Charles Babington and Liz Sidoti in Washington and Christopher Wills in Clearwater, Fla.,