NEW YORK, September 11 – John McCain and Barack Obama were to observe a truce Thursday in their increasingly bitter White House contest with a joint appearance at Ground Zero on the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.,
Their visit to the site of the former World Trade Centre in Manhattan promised a rare break from hostilities in the frenzied last two months of the presidential race.
"There will be no speeches," Democrat Obama’s spokeswoman Linda Douglass said. "This is going to be a moment when politics are set aside."
Both Obama and his Republican rival McCain were to suspend campaign advertising for the day.
Heavy security was in place well ahead, with streets near Ground Zero closed and buses re-routed before ceremonies starting at 8:40 am (1240 GMT).
Two separate minutes of silence were to mark the moments when the two hijacked airliners struck on September 11, 2001, destroying each of the Twin Towers and killing some 3,000 people, at 8:46 am and at 9:03 am.
Ceremonies included additional minutes of silence commemorating the collapse of each tower, as well as the traditional reading out of all victims’ names.
McCain and Obama, expected by staff to be arriving later in the day, after the official ceremonies, have promised to bury the hatchet in honor of the anniversary.
Over the last week the White House contest has degenerated into name-calling, climaxing with the row over Obama’s branding of the Republican campaign of McCain and running mate Sarah Palin as "lipstick on a pig."
But Obama set the tone for the Ground Zero event, saying Wednesday that 9/11 showed "that here in America, we all have a stake in each other; I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper; and we rise and fall as one nation."
Although they will want to avoid any semblance of politicking at Ground Zero itself, temperatures could rise later in the day when the two candidates participate in a televised forum at 8:00 pm (0000 GMT Friday).
The forum, organized by a coalition of civic groups named ServiceNation, is not a debate and the two rivals will appear separately, with Obama going second, a line-up his aides said was decided by the flick of a coin.
Douglass said her boss might use the occasion to respond "to the Republicans’ mocking of his own youthful commitment to community service."
However analysts think the antagonists will be on best behaviour.
"The campaign’s likely to get pretty nasty, but tomorrow they’ll want to be above the battle," said John Mueller, a politics professor at Ohio State University. "Bashing the opponent is bad politics at that moment."
The 9/11 attacks remain a deeply emotional issue in the United States, even if polls show that pocketbook concerns, particularly the parlous state of the housing market, now top terrorism fears.
Because of continued delays in erecting the World Trade Centre’s replacement and a memorial, the memory of the attacks remain literally an open wound.
On the eve of the anniversary, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lambasted bureaucratic hurdles for what he said was "frustratingly slow" progress in redeveloping the site.
Sally Regenhard, whose fireman son was killed seven years ago during the deadly rescue mission, hopes the candidates’ presence will renew focus on what she says are the unlearned lessons of 9/11.
"I’d like to hear them say they’re going to get more involved regarding the need to protect our cities from all types of chemical and biological and radiological attacks," she told AFP.
"I want them to get involved with legislation to create a national standard for emergency response after attacks, hurricanes, whatever the emergency."
But don’t expect the bipartisan approach in Manhattan to last long, warned New York University politics professor Steven Brams.
"They’ll obviously want to unify the country, to commemorate this occasion. There’ll be no harsh words exchanged if they meet face to face," Brams said. "But this is just an interlude."