NEW YORK (Reuters) - Republican White House hopeful John McCain threw the U.S. 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 ahead of Friday’s scheduled debate.
The Arizona senator announced he would suspend his campaign, pull television advertising, halt fundraising 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, urging Obama to join him.
McCain’s pressure appeared to pay off. Hours later, Obama agreed to a request from President George W. Bush to attend a White House meeting on Thursday with McCain and congressional leaders, and the campaigns issued a joint statement saying, “This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country.”
But Obama said he saw no reason to delay their debate in Oxford, Mississippi, the first of three face-to-face encounters scheduled between them before November 4 Election Day.
“What I’m planning to do now is debate on Friday,” Obama told reporters in Clearwater, Florida, where he had gone to prepare for the high-stakes encounter. “I think that it is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”
A senior McCain adviser made clear McCain would not attend a Friday debate unless a congressional rescue deal was sealed.
“If the package is reached and the country is saved, there will be a debate,” the aide said. “But if there’s no deal, how can you get on a plane ... for a debate?”
It was the latest shocker to emerge from the McCain camp, a list that includes his 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.
The rescue is coming under heavy assault from lawmakers in both parties, 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.
The Obama campaign said it was caught completely by surprise. “Nobody had left the impression with him that something definitive had been decided by Senator McCain” about the debate, said Obama adviser Robert Gibbs.
McCain, who last week drew fire from Democrats for saying U.S. economic fundamentals were sound, was attempting to get his message back on track.
He 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, a day after Reid had said on the Senate floor that McCain’s help was needed.
McCain denied political motivations.
“I don’t think, at this time, that we can worry much about politics,” McCain told the “CBS Evening News,” calling the country’s financial condition “dire” but disagreeing with Palin that a repeat of the Great Depression could be in the offing.
A senior aide said McCain spoke to billionaire Warren Buffett by phone and Buffett gave him a dire prediction of what would happen to the U.S. economy if no rescue deal were reached.
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 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.
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, John Whitesides and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Peter Cooney