Less than 24 hours before they were to share a stage, John McCain and Barack Obama remained at odds over today's first presidential debate, with Obama planning to proceed and McCain holding out for a congressional rescue of the nation's teetering financial system.
After showing up for a White House meeting on the administration's troubled bailout proposal, the candidates appeared no closer to breaking their impasse. On Thursday night, Obama urged McCain to join him at the University of Mississippi.
"Sen. McCain has no reason to be fearful about a debate," the Democrat said.
Aides to McCain reiterated his intention to stay in Washington until a legislative agreement is reached, even if it means skipping today's session, the first of three debates planned between now and mid October.
"I believe that it's very possible that we can get an agreement in time for me to fly to Mississippi," McCain said late Thursday. "I understand how important this debate is and I'm very hopeful. But I also have to put the country first."
McCain did not participate in late-night negotiations on Capitol Hill but worked the phones from his Virginia home. He said he knew going into the meeting that progress wasn't as far along as it seemed. "There never was a deal, but I do believe the meeting was important to move the process along," he said.
Obama suggested McCain was part of the problem. "I'm not clear that in a very difficult situation like this that doing things in the spotlight and injecting presidential politics is necessarily useful."
University officials, the major television networks and the nonpartisan commission sponsoring the debate indicated they would proceed as planned, on the assumption McCain will show up at the last minute. But the prospect he might skip the debate — which would be unprecedented — only elevated the political stakes.
"I could see it cutting either way," said John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. "Obama could cast this as McCain's effort to duck debates, and McCain could cast it as Obama putting political interests ahead of national interests. Since this is totally uncharted waters, I don't know whose interpretation is going to win."
With the race so close, the debates could prove pivotal.
Today's assigned topic is national security and foreign policy, but the candidates would be free to discuss whatever they choose, using questions from the moderator, PBS's Jim Lehrer, as a starting point. Obama told NBC's Nightly News he planned to talk about the economy. "With this looming on the horizon, this has an effect all across the globe."
The TV audience for today's debate, if held, would likely be huge, perhaps rivaling the record 80.6-million Americans who watched the 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter. Then, as now, the nation was facing a slumping economy and troubles abroad. The political dynamic was also similar, with a candidate fresh to the national scene having to prove his trustworthiness against a more familiar figure.
While presidential debates of the past 40 years have produced some memorable moments — Michael Dukakis fumbling a question on the death penalty, the elder George Bush stealing a glance at his watch, Al Gore theatrically sighing — they have rarely decided the outcome of an election. That could change this year, analysts say.
"The country's at war. Current events are hitting home as people go to the store, go to the filling station," said Robert Friedenberg, a presidential debate expert at Ohio's Miami University. "Couple that with the fact it appears we're going to have a close election, and it seems these debates will have more impact than normal."