OXFORD, Miss. -- Sen. John McCain may or may not have broken the bailout bill -- and surely he didn't do so all by himself.
But he owns it now.
In the battle over perceptions, it really is this simple: There was a deal before McCain came back to Washington. There was not a deal by the time the evening ended. And now there might not be a bill -- or a first presidential debate Friday in Mississippi.
Holding that very heavy bag are McCain and his GOP colleagues in Congress. Steve Schmidt gets his wish: McCain is in the middle of the action -- amid friendly fire, political gamesmanship, competing loyalties, reelection fights, and a White House with no juice left.
(And, oddly, the whole distraction has an upside for Team McCain: We're not talking about Gov. Sarah Palin, whose slow media rollout is maybe not going slow enough.)
"Democrats immediately blamed McCain for disrupting the effort at compromise, saying his decision to suspend his campaign and return to Washington shifted the klieg lights of the White House contest to the tense and delicate congressional negotiations," Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post.
Oh yes, the debate.
We know that at least half of this strange non-team that saw the bailout bill go from done deal to just plain done Thursday at the White House will be making the trip to Ole Miss.
Sen. Barack Obama's A team is already in Oxford, Miss., for a debate that would be fraught with symbolism and historical significance even if its very existence wasn't still in doubt.
"Come hell or high water, we're going to Oxford," an Obama press aide said late Thursday, per ABC's Sunlen Miller.
ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "If McCain fails to show up, officials are mulling turning the first presidential debate into a town hall meeting where the Democratic presidential candidate takes questions from the audience and from the debate moderator PBS's Jim Lehrer."
We don't know whether McCain, having staked the near-term fate of his campaign to a bailout bill that members of his party absolutely loathe (and that even he seems unsure about whether he should embrace), will be making the trip. The McCain traveling press pool is assembling at 8:30 am ET, "just in case" they have to leave Washington quickly, per ABC's Bret Hovell.
This may all get worked out in plenty of time for McCain to get his moment. Maybe he will be cast as the deal's savior. Maybe this thing is such a bear that he shouldn't be seen as saving it -- not in its current form. Maybe the debate goes off as scheduled and this will all be a footnote.
The framework agreed to between the White House, Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans, and House Democrats remains in place -- and while it's too late to squeeze in a vote before Friday night, a deal could still come together, Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Friday.
Regarding McCain's participation in Oxford: "It's way up in the air right now."
Is this what McCain bargained for?