CLEARWATER — John McCain rocked the already turbulent presidential race Wednesday, announcing that he would suspend his campaign and calling for Friday's debate to be postponed so he can focus on the economic crisis.
The dramatic move took Barack Obama's campaign by surprise, prompting a hastily scheduled news conference at the Belleview Biltmore where the Democratic nominee declared that the debate should go on as scheduled.
"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. "It's going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."
Later Wednesday, Obama announced he will leave Clearwater today to attend a meeting in Washington with President Bush, McCain and congressional leaders from both parties to discuss a bailout package. He remained firm that the debate should go forward.
Obama had been scheduled to remain in Clearwater for debate prep until Friday morning, and his campaign suggested he might show up for the Oxford, Miss., debate even if McCain doesn't. Planning for the event estimated at $5-million has been under way a year and a half, and organizers said they were moving forward despite McCain's announcement.
On a day when both candidates sought to portray themselves as determined to rise above politics, they worked at least as hard on political one-upsmanship.
In the afternoon, the Obama campaign announced that the Illinois senator called McCain that morning to suggest they craft a joint statement to help encourage a bipartisan financial bailout package. But it was McCain who came out before the TV cameras to announce he was suspending his campaign to help ensure lawmakers pass a relief package.
"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."
Polls show that voters trust Democrats on the economy more than Republicans, and since the Wall Street meltdown erupted Sept. 15, Obama has been gaining ground in state and national polls. With his move, McCain sought to look like the candidate more engaged in the crisis and to turn the debate to the question of who has the character and leadership to fix the economic problems.
"He put everything on the line to try to put together a bipartisan, sizable economic package to replace the failed (Treasury Secretary Henry) Paulson bailout package," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican. "This is the greatest single act of responsibility ever taken by a presidential candidate and rivals President Eisenhower saying, 'I will go to Korea.' "
McCain has a risk-taker's knack for shocking the political world, as he did a month ago in picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. But the latest example could backfire if swing voters view the move more like a political stunt than statesmanlike.
"McCain is ducking the debate," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, suggesting it might make sense to shift the focus of Friday's debate from foreign policy to the economy. "America needs a president who can focus on many problems and challenges at the same time. … We need our leaders defending and explaining their vision."
Even David Letterman ripped the Republican nominee, who canceled a planned appearance on Letterman's show.
"He can't run the campaign because the economy is cratering? Fine, put in your second-string quarterback, Sarah Palin. Where is she?" Letterman asked. "What are you going to do if you're elected and things get tough? Suspend being president?"
CNN reported that the McCain campaign was trying to negotiate with the Obama campaign and the debate commission to change the vice presidential debate planned for next Thursday into a McCain-Obama affair.
The risk for Obama is that he looks insensitive or crass continuing to campaign, while McCain has suspended advertising, fundraising and other campaign activity to tackle a national crisis.
"What I've told the leadership in Congress is that, if I can be helpful, then I am prepared to be anywhere, any time,'' Obama said in the news conference that followed a campaign rally in Dunedin. "What I think is important, though, is that we don't suddenly infuse Capitol Hill with presidential politics at a time when we're in the middle of some very delicate and difficult negotiations. "
The financial crisis and controversial $700-billion bailout has put both candidates in a sticky position. They can't afford to be seen as AWOL during a national crisis or as helping fuel a greater disaster by thwarting a bailout package. But neither is embracing the Bush administration proposal, and both have issued calls for greater oversight and accountability, including a guarantee that taxpayers won't further enrich Wall Street executives.
About 30 minutes before Bush's address to the nation, the candidates released a joint statement:
"The American people are facing a moment of economic crisis. No matter how this began, we all have a responsibility to work through it and restore confidence in our economy. The jobs, savings, and prosperity of the American people are at stake.
"Now is a time to come together — Democrats and Republicans — in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the American people. The plan that has been submitted to Congress by the Bush administration is flawed, but the effort to protect the American economy must not fail.
"This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe. Now is our chance to come together to prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country."
Times staff writers Wes Allison and Will Van Sant contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.