The Note: The Gambler

There was no bailout coming for Sen. John McCain's campaign. So he tried to create his own.

McCain's move is a gamble, something of a gimmick -- and something that only a campaign headed in the wrong direction might do. But for a campaign trying to project "country first," there may not be a better chance to live the message.

Whether or not there's a deal and therefore a debate, McCain dealt himself back into the biggest issue of the campaign.

A day of candidate phone tag -- capped by asking for a debate rain check -- put Sen. Barack Obama on defense at least for the moment, leaving him (perhaps awkwardly, perhaps elegantly) defending politics while McCain talks policy.

As of Thursday morning, McCain aides tell ABC News that the candidate isn't going to Mississippi Friday unless a deal on the bailout bill is in place -- though the prospects of such a deal are looking up.

Maybe he's seen, ultimately, as nudging things along. But is this a measure that McCain wants to be witnessed touching?

"John McCain is a gambler by nature, and the bet he placed Wednesday may be among the biggest of his political life," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "What he risks, if things don't go as he hopes, is a judgment by voters that his move was a reckless act by an impetuous and struggling politician that hardened partisan lines in Washington at just the wrong moment and complicated efforts to deal with the biggest financial crisis in more than half a century."

It's the surge all over again: McCain now owns a policy that's viewed with fierce skepticism, even (and especially) by members of his own party. It's not that he hasn't been here before -- it's that he hasn't been here before this close to an election.

Did someone mention a gamble? "Faced with unfavorable odds in the presidential campaign, John McCain time and again finds a way to roll the dice," Peter Wallsten and Peter Nicholas write for the Los Angeles Times. "And, like naming a running mate untested on the national stage, it carries risks: Will voters view McCain's move as decisive, or unsteady, or even as an overtly partisan act to gain traction on an issue that he said Wednesday should transcend partisanship?"

"Bold or bonkers," reads the New York Daily News headline.

Not taking sides, former President Bill Clinton said on ABC's "Good Morning America" McCain's request was made in "good faith" -- and said if Friday's debate does happen, some economy talk would be warranted.

"You could put it off a few days -- the problem is it's hard to reschedule those things," Clinton told Chris Cuomo. "I presume [McCain requested a delay] in good faith, since I know he wanted -- I remember he asked for more debates, to go all around the country." (He's always had a good memory.)

Now, with Thursday's meeting at the White House (Obama is coming to Washington after all -- did McCain win Round One?), we have three presidents. Ask the one who still lives in the White House about the joys of the job.

"It puts them directly on the line over an issue whose politics are mutating almost by the hour, forcing them to balance a sense that the country is angry about the prospect of being stuck with the bill for Wall Street's excesses against a chance that failure to act quickly could have dire economic consequences," Michael Cooper writes in The New York Times.

"Whatever the risk, Senators McCain and Obama were all-in by the end of the day Wednesday," Cooper writes. "The politics are especially complex for Mr. McCain, who took the bigger gamble earlier in the day by assertively claiming a leadership role."

Does anyone think that bringing campaigns into the negotiating room will help negotiations? And do negotiators need the fate of the first presidential debate added to the agenda?

"It was unclear whether the return of Sens. McCain and Obama to the capital would provide the jolt needed to reach a bipartisan deal that gives cover to politicians of both parties. And it was unclear who would benefit most from the new jockeying between the presidential contenders," The Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler, Elizabeth Holmes and Christopher Cooper report.

"Mr. McCain's actions not only cast doubt on whether the highly anticipated debate would come off, but also thrust an unpredictable new element into the negotiations for the bailout, with some Democrats warning that Mr. McCain's intervention could derail progress being made on the rescue package," Elisabeth Bumiller and Jeff Zeleny report in The New York Times.

"The fast-moving developments sent behind-the-scenes talks on Capitol Hill colliding with a fierce presidential campaign now heading into its final five weeks," Susan Page and Kathy Kiely write for USA Today. "McCain's move -- praised by some Republicans as a sign of leadership, ridiculed by Democrats as grandstanding -- was a gamble that might recast a slipping campaign. It also could affect what is likely to be the biggest bailout in U.S. history."

But things are close: "We're heading towards a deal today," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "You've got so many of the major players now bought into the idea that you have to have a solution. . . . If the framework is put into place today, there will be a debate tomorrow."

As negotiations resume on the Hill Thursday morning, it's looking good: "Senior lawmakers and Bush administration officials have cleared away key obstacles to a deal on the unprecedented rescue, agreeing to include widely supported limits on pay packages for executives whose companies benefit," the AP's Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports.

Whether or not a deal happens Thursday, McCain was not operating from a position of strength here: Recall that the campaign's message earlier in the day was focused on why the new ABC News/Washington Post poll showing Obama plus-9 (and plus-24 on the economy) was wrong.

"It reflects not only the deep concerns of Republican and Democratic leaders about the grave state of the economy, but also the shifting dynamics in a presidential contest that polls suggest has swung in Obama's favor," Scott Helman reports in The Boston Globe. "Voters' focus on the Wall Street crisis and the economy -- long an advantage for Obama -- has helped give him an edge this week nationally and in key battleground states."

"It's the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of either football or Marys," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

"Make no mistake: there is a reason that the guy behind in the polls did this," Howard Wolfson blogs for The New Republic.

Is the gambler trying to walk (or run) away? "It's hard to imagine that the most useful thing for everyone involved wouldn't be to hear, in clear terms, and at length, just what McCain and Obama think about the whole mess," Todd Purdum writes for Vanity Fair.

David Letterman (stood up, and playing pundit): "Suspending it because there's an economic crisis, or because the poll numbers are sliding? . . . If he's in the White House, he might just suspend being president. I mean, we've got a guy like that now!"

But sayeth a (newly relevant) Newt: "This is the greatest single act of responsibility ever taken by a presidential candidate and rivals President Eisenhower saying, 'I will go to Korea,' " former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said.

Dick Morris and Eileen McGann: "Defensively, McCain had to act to stop the fall in his poll numbers. Offensively, he has placed himself at the epicenter of the only issue on the national agenda -- proactive action to stop a total international financial collapse."

"If the race is between an energetic executive and an indecisive talker, the energetic executive should win," Bill Kristol writes in The Weekly Standard.

Why now?, asks Politico's Ben Smith: "Both candidates have been marginal players; McCain, though, seems to have the potential to make himself a major one, and his move is a mark, most of all, that he doesn't like the way this campaign is going. But in terms of the timing of this move: The only thing that's changed in the last 48 hours is the public polling."

At what point will we cease to be surprised by this man?

"The gambit blindsided Mr. Obama, boxing him into a choice between looking weak by giving into his rival, or coming off as petulant if he insisted on going forward with a debate Friday on foreign policy -- a topic whose urgency has dimmed amid dire warnings of a market meltdown," Todd J. Gilman writes in The Dallas Morning News.

"Barack Obama and his team were caught off guard by John McCain's suspension of his campaign and his call to delay the first presidential debate so he could return to Capitol Hill to work on the financial crisis -- just as they were surprised when McCain tapped little-known Sarah Palin as his running mate," Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. "The Obama team has not figured out yet that McCain is waging an asymmetrical campaign, meaning at times he will take a risky, counterintuitive course, just as he did on Wednesday."

As for the debate: "My sense is there's going to be a stage, a moderator, an audience and at least one presidential candidate," said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Or not: "If McCain does not attend, 'there won't be a debate,' said one person involved in the negotiations," per The Washington Post's Robert Barnes.

As for the debate over debating the debate: "Even as the two campaigns labored to appear conciliatory, they differed over who made the first move," Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune.

What if he doesn't show? "Obama should still travel to Oxford, Miss., and if McCain declines, Obama should do what any school board, city council, state assembly or congressional candidate would do if an opponent tried to sand bag a joint appearance at the last minute: debate an empty chair," Joe Cutbirth writes at Huffington Post.

"If McCain actually boycotts the Oxford debate, Obama may score a public-relations coup while his Republican rival looks weak and evasive," Salon's Walter Shapiro writes. "Or the Democratic nominee may appear too political while McCain puts on his mantle as statesman."

Team McCain wouldn't mind a second delay, either: "The McCain campaign told ABC News on Wednesday that John McCain wants to postpone Friday's presidential debate until Thursday, Oct. 2," per ABC's Teddy Davis and Rigel Anderson. "The Arizona senator would like the vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, which is currently scheduled to take place on Thursday, Oct. 2 in St. Louis, Missouri, to be scheduled for a later unspecified date."

As for the legislative prospects: "How close anyone is to a real bipartisan deal acceptable to Treasury is open to question. But Frank and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D- Conn.) are slated to meet Thursday morning with their Republican counterparts on the two committees, and the two Democrats have an agreement among themselves of what they would like added to the Treasury proposal," Politico's David Rogers and Amie Parnes write.

"A joint call from presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) for a financial rescue package Wednesday isolated House rank-and-file Republicans who have yet to sign on and are critical to its passage," Roll Call's Emily Pierce and Steven T. Dennis write.

Thanks, but no thanks: "It appears to me John McCain is trying to divert attention to his failing campaign," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., per ABC's Jake Tapper.

But didn't he sort of ask for this? "Democrats had dared Sen. John McCain to show leadership on the Wall Street crisis and he stepped up," Stephen Dinan and Christina Bellantoni write in the Washington Times.

As for the blame -- don't look over here, says the president. "President Bush offered a bunch of explanations but held Washington completely blameless, painting a picture of a government standing innocently on the sidelines as the economy went off the rails," per the AP's Terence Hunt. "Somehow, under Bush's scenario, the country wound up at the precipice of 'a long and painful recession' at a time when, apparently, the Congress, the White House, the regulators and the Fed were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing."

New numbers for our backdrop: Obama 49, McCain 45 in the Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll.

"Obama continues to lead McCain across the board on domestic issues, which a majority of voters consider the most important factor in their choice of candidate," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla writes. "The Illinois senator beats McCain by 14 points on who has better ideas for strengthening the nation's economy."

Still tight: "The crisis in the financial markets and increasing anxiety about the economy are playing to Barack Obama's political strengths, but they have not given him a substantial lead in the presidential contest," Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times. "Obama's lead shrinks to 46% to 44% if all registered voters are counted -- not much different than the result of a Times/Bloomberg poll in August, which also showed Obama holding a 2-percentage-point margin."

Even tighter in the new Wall Street Journal/NBC numbers: Obama 48, McCain 46. "The race between Barack Obama and John McCain remains a dead heat, despite financial turmoil that has turned the nation's attention to economic issues that tend to favor the Democratic presidential candidate," the Journal's Laura Meckler writes.

Politico's Mike Allen drills down into the states: "State by state, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill). is showing signs of breaking open a presidential race that looked deadlocked through much of September. A new wave of polls released Wednesday showed decisive leads for Obama in the critical states of Colorado, Michigan and Pennsylvania. That follows noticeable progress in polls in Virginia, which had looked safe for Sen. John McCain, and Florida, which had looked promising for McCain."

Debate advice, from Karl Rove: "Mr. McCain needs to come across as optimistic, loose and likable. He must guard against revealing his lack of respect for Mr. Obama. And he must grab the 'change' banner from Mr. Obama by describing a few things he'll do internationally that are new and different," Rove writes in his Journal column. "Mr. Obama's task is to look like a credible commander in chief. Right now, too many people lack confidence that he's up to the most important of presidential responsibilities. Mr. Obama must avoid the pervasive sense of nuance that weakened his performance at the Saddleback Forum."

The stakes: "A debate tie goes to the frontrunner. With that now being Mr. Obama by a slim margin, Mr. McCain must emerge the clear winner, or his prospects of being the next president will dim," Rove writes.

What happened to the big, bold campaign? "Six weeks before Election Day, a day before the first scheduled debate, the forces of innovation and authenticity are being routed by the forces of conventionality and cliché," John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write for Politico. "Part of the answer is that Obama and McCain are more timid and less creative figures than they looked to be a year ago. The larger story is that the incentives in American politics rewarding politics as usual -- especially in our own business, the media -- are far more powerful than either candidate's tentative and inconsistent impulses to challenge politics as usual."

The Sked:

McCain's 8:45 am ET speech before the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City is still on. Obama gets his turn via satellite from Florida at 10 am ET.

Then it's on to Washington for both candidates, for the big meeting at the White House at 4 pm ET.

Joe Biden campaigns in Greensburg and Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Also in the news:

Fresh from the Fannie and Freddie files: "Rick Davis, John McCain's campaign manager, has remained the treasurer and a corporate director of his lobbying firm this year, despite repeated statements by campaign officials that he had ended his relationship with the firm in 2006, according to corporate records," Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reports.

Cumulative impact? "New reports that a company owned by John McCain's campaign manager received a $15,000 monthly stipend from a major mortgage firm at the center of the credit crisis are clouding the Arizona senator's effort to portray himself as a Wall Street reformer," Stephen Braun writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Davis and "friends" star in a new ad running on national cable starting Thursday, a $100,000 buy that also blasts the bailout bill as a Wall Street handout.

Where's Carly been? "For months, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive officer was the face of the McCain campaign in scores of televised interviews. She was mentioned as a possible vice president, a Washington outsider who could bolster the Arizona senator's economic credentials and draw women voters," Bloomberg's Indira A.R. Lakshmanan writes. "Now, she is on the sidelines: After at least six national TV appearances last week, Fiorina, 54, has stopped granting interviews and has spoken at just one campaign event since her Sept. 16 comment that none of the presidential or vice presidential candidates -- including the ones she is advising -- was qualified to run a major corporation."

Dirty money in Chicago? "A $100,000 state grant for a botanic garden in Englewood that then-state Sen. Barack Obama awarded in 2001 to a group headed by a onetime campaign volunteer is now under investigation by the Illinois attorney general amid new questions, prompted by Chicago Sun-Times reports, about whether the money might have been misspent," the Sun-Times' Chris Fusco and Dave McKinney report.

"The garden was never built. And now state records obtained by the Sun-Times show $65,000 of the grant money went to the wife of Kenny B. Smith, the Obama 2000 congressional campaign volunteer who heads the Chicago Better Housing Association, which was in charge of the project for the blighted South Side neighborhood."

Betcha Biden can't say the same: "A grainy YouTube video surfaced Wednesday showing Sarah Palin being blessed in her hometown church three years ago by a Kenyan pastor who prayed for her protection from 'witchcraft' as she prepared to seek higher office," Garance Burke reports for the AP. "The video shows Palin standing before Bishop Thomas Muthee in the pulpit of the Wasilla Assembly of God church, holding her hands open as he asked Jesus Christ to keep her safe from 'every form of witchcraft.' "

Betcha Palin would disagree: "Well, obviously, of course, she does not have that," First Lady Laura Bush said on CNN, when asked if Palin has foreign policy experience. "That has not been her role, but I think that she is a very quick study and fortunately John McCain does have that experience."

Palin, to Katie Couric, on whether we're headed for a depression (read carefully for the news): "Unfortunately, that is the road that America may find itself on. Not necessarily this, as it's been proposed, has to pass or we're going to find ourselves in another Great Depression. But, there has got to be action -- bipartisan effort -- Congress not pointing fingers at one another but finding the solution to this, taking action, and being serious about the reforms on Wall Street that are needed."

And examples of McCain pushing for regulation? "I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you," Palin said. (Looking forward to that delivery, governor.)

Miracle of miracles: "McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb said Palin will do more interviews and hold at least one news conference before Election Day," The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports.

Who's running Alaska, anyway? "The McCain campaign is speaking for the Alaska state government these days, especially when it wants to ensure that nothing embarrassing about Gov. Sarah Palin emerges before Election Day," per the AP's Matt Volz. "Questions for the Palin administration are most often answered by McCain staffers, including Meghan Stapleton, a former Palin spokeswoman; Taylor Griffin, who worked for President Bush's campaigns in 2000 and 2004; and Ed O'Callaghan, a McCain campaign lawyer and former federal prosecutor from New York."

Even Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell can't reach the governor regularly: "Until she was hacked, we were communicating just about daily. Now I'm talking with her chief of staff," Parnell said.

What might have driven a different day: "Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden delivered a withering critique of John McCain's national security and foreign policy yesterday, saying the Republican presidential nominee would 'dig us in a deeper hole' instead of making the country safer and restoring America's position in the world," Lisa Wangsness writes in The Boston Globe.

"Biden argued today that McCain has shown poor judgment in his support for the war in Iraq, while Obama has been a consistent critic of a war that began 10 months before he became a U.S. senator from Illinois," Howard Wilkinson reports in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The Washington Examiner endorses McCain-Palin: "America is at war overseas and in an economic crisis here at home. Many of her citizens believe the country is on the wrong track. It is for times such as these that men like John McCain are made, to put country first so that it can be put right in its time of need."

New soundtrack at Obama rallies: "Centerfield" is on the playlist, before "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." Adam C. Smith of the St. Petersburg Times: "Now John Fogerty caps it off before Stevie: 'Oh, put me in, coach -- I'm ready to play today; Put me in, coach -- I'm ready to play today; Look at me, I can be centerfield.' "

The Kicker:

"Hey John, I got a question! You need a ride to the airport?" -- David Letterman, shouting at John McCain as he was getting makeup applied for his interview with Katie Couric -- after canceling on Letterman.

"You are even more gorgeous than you are on the [TV]." -- Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, to Sarah Palin.

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