NEW YORK, September 25 – Just 40 days from the US general election, the fast-moving financial crisis has transformed the White House race into a daring duel of political brinkmanship between John McCain and Barack Obama.
It was a compelling day of political bluff and counter-bluff Wednesday with each of the rivals trying to show the steady nerve, on-the-fly strategizing and leadership aura worthy of a president.
Sinking in the polls as his Democratic rival capitalizes on the economic anxiety sweeping the United States, McCain pulled off a sudden and daring maneuver, suspending his campaign and challenging Obama to do the same.
But Obama refused to take the bait, rejecting the Republican champion’s call to delay their crucial first presidential debate on Friday with a withering rebuke to McCain that presidents must deal with "more than one thing at once."
Enter President George W. Bush. The unpopular lame duck leader, warning in a nationally televised address late Wednesday of a "long and painful recession" unless immediate action was taken, persuaded Obama to meet him, McCain and top congressional players in Washington on Thursday.
The historic White House "summit" may provide the political cover each side needs to ram a financial rescue deal through Congress — for which both will no doubt claim a large slice of the credit.
McCain had watched his poll numbers steadily tick down in recent days, and it seemed he knew he had to make a bold move to stop the election slipping away after leaving a poor impression during a week of economic slippage.
In a sudden and stunning press conference in a New York hotel, the 72-year-old Arizona senator announced gravely that he had put his White House campaign on hold, and would return to Washington to search for a solution to the crisis.
"We must meet as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, and we must meet until this crisis is resolved," McCain said.
That seemed a message directed at wavering Democrats who have yet to embrace Obama and independent voters, a sign that the old, maverik reformer McCain — not the clone of Bush that Democrats are trying to frame — was back.
The campaign said the move was motivated by a realisation that nothing was going to get done in Washington without the politicians with the most to lose, or gain, from a solution getting involved.
"There was no consensus being arrived at. McCain is putting chips on the table," one aide to the Republican said.
McCain’s abrupt declaration seemed to catch the Obama camp off guard. But the Illinois senator was soon back in the game — and raising the stakes significantly.
He rejected McCain’s call to return to Washington and dismissed his demand that the debate be delayed until a bailout package is framed.
"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."
But even if a deal is reached, it may not reset the presidential race.
McCain will likely not be able to sidestep Obama attacks designed to saddle him squarely with Bush’s legacy and blame eight years of Republican leadership for the crisis.
Both Obama and McCain also have a political interest in being seen to reluctantly embrace the 700-billion-dollar bailout package levied by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
Though many analysts and people in both campaigns deem it vital to staving off a financial disaster, the package seems to be widely unpopular in battleground states which hold the fate of the White House race.
The spectacle of Wall Street tycoons profiting from a taxpayer bailout could be a political dampener in states like rustbelt Ohio and economically stretched Michigan.
While Obama agreed to the White House summit, his fellow Democrats lashed out at McCain, trying to ensure that blame for the crisis sparked by piles of bad debts, remains squarely attached to Bush’s Republicans.
"With polls showing his campaign is at its weakest, Senator McCain’s decision may have less to do with the drop in the Dow Jones average and more to do with a decline in the Gallup poll," said Obama ally Senator Dick Durbin.
New polls meanwhile suggested a possible Obama surge and that he was profiting from the crisis.
The Washington Post/ABC poll gave Democrat Obama a 52 percent to 43 percent lead. Obama was up 45 to 39 in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey, but another poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal put the gap at only two points.