NEW YORK (Reuters) - Republican White House hopeful John McCain threw the campaign into turmoil on Wednesday by calling for a delay in the first presidential debate to try to forge a Wall Street rescue plan — a surprise move promptly rejected by Democrat Barack Obama.
The political stunner came as some polls showed McCain falling behind Obama in their race for the November 4 election. Republicans and the White House welcomed McCain’s move as a needed appeal for both parties to work together, while Democrats suspected a publicity stunt.
The Arizona senator announced he would suspend his campaign, pull television advertising, halt fund-raising and return to Washington on Thursday to try to help negotiations over a stalled $700 billion bailout plan for Wall Street.
“We must meet as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, and we must meet until this crisis is resolved,” McCain said. He urged Illinois Sen. Obama to join him in returning to Washington to try to reach a consensus agreement by Monday.
The rescue is coming under heavy assault from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and Americans are skeptical about bailing out Wall Street with a plan that costs more than the United States has sunk into the Iraq war.
Obama, in Clearwater, Florida, to prepare for the first of three face-to-face debates leading up to the November 4 election, said he saw no reason the debate could not proceed on Friday in Oxford, Mississippi.
“What I’m planning to do now is debate on Friday,” Obama said.
“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,” he said. “I think that it is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”
It was the latest shocker to emerge from the McCain camp, a list that includes his surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate and his recent call for the firing of Christopher Cox as chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission over the financial crisis.
McCain and Obama spoke earlier in the day by phone about issuing a joint statement to try to prod along bailout talks, but McCain jumped ahead by announcing his move first.
The Obama campaign said it was caught completely by surprise. “Nobody had left the impression with him that something definitive had been decided by Sen. McCain” about the debate, said Obama adviser Robert Gibbs.
McCain warned he did not believe the Bush administration’s proposed legislation on the bailout plan for the financial industry would pass the U.S. Congress in its current form and that he and Obama were needed in Washington to help reach a broad consensus.
Democrats called for the debate to proceed.
“We need leadership; not a campaign photo op,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told McCain in a phone call. McCain denied political motivations.
“I don’t think, at this time, that we can worry much about politics,” McCain told CBS News, calling the country’s financial condition “dire” but disagreeing with Palin that a repeat of the Great Depression could be in the offing.
The U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the debates, said it would hold the debate on Friday as planned. The University of Mississippi, host of the first debate, said it knew of no plans to delay it.
McCain’s dramatic move, aimed at projecting leadership during the greatest U.S. financial crisis since the Depression, came at a time when Americans have been telling pollsters they believe Obama could handle the economy better than McCain.
An ABC News-Washington Post opinion poll said Obama had climbed to a 52 percent to 43 percent lead over McCain, a survey the McCain camp questioned.
McCain urged President George W. Bush to call for a bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders, including himself and Obama, to try to find an agreement.
The $700 billion proposal would have the Treasury buy up bad mortgage-related debts from financial institutions, including U.S. subsidiaries of foreign banks, to try to stem the financial storm.
But many lawmakers have heartburn about many of its provisions, criticizing it as a lifeline for Wall Street when homeowners and ordinary Americans are suffering.
“It’s a very unpopular bill,” Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said in Washington. “The bill’s in trouble in Congress. We’re going to work together to fix it.”
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, John Whitesides and Thomas Ferraro; editing by Todd Eastham