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?
The would-be savior "found himself in the midst of a remarkable partisan showdown, lacking a clear public message for how to bring it to an end," The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Elisabeth Bumiller write. "As a matter of political appearances, the day's events succeeded most of all in raising questions about precisely why Mr. McCain had called for postponing the first debate and returned to Washington to focus on the bailout plan, and what his own views were about what should be done."
(And if there is a debate, it may not be the one McCain wanted: "I am not restrained from asking questions about the financial crisis," Jim Lehrer said in an e-mail message. "Stay tuned!")
"If there is a debate tonight, it will be about the economy. Not entirely, but enough to give Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain the opportunity to discuss the financial crisis, Washington's proposed solution and the unfinished business awaiting the next president," per The Washington Post's Dan Balz.
Who's to blame for the fact that we're talking about "ifs"? "At the White House, the gathering turned contentious when House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) brought up a new set of principles that conservative House Republicans had been laid out earlier in the day," Shear and Weisman report in the Post. "Boehner's move was received poorly by Obama and the other Democrats, who quickly pressed McCain to say whether he supported Boehner's position, according to a detailed account of the meeting. McCain declined to commit, one source said."
"Mr. Boehner pressed an alternative that involved a smaller role for the government, and Mr. McCain, whose support of the deal is critical if fellow Republicans are to sign on, declined to take a stand," per The New York Times' David M. Herszenhorn, Carl Hulse and Sheryl Gay Stolberg. "The talks broke up in angry recriminations, according to accounts provided by a participant and others who were briefed on the session, and were followed by dueling news conferences and interviews rife with partisan finger-pointing."
Classic scene: Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, "literally bent down on one knee," pleading with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to allow the deal to collapse. Pelosi: "It's not me blowing this up, it's the Republicans." Mr. Paulson sighed: "I know. I know."
And what a quote: "If money isn't loosened up, this sucker could go down," said the 43rd President of the United States.
"By midnight, it was hard to tell who had suffered a worse evening, Bush or McCain. McCain, eager to shore up his image as a leader who rises above partisanship, was undercut by a fierce political squabble within his own party's ranks," the AP's Charles Babington writes.
"It's a curious way, so far, for McCain to be demonstrating his leadership ability," Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Do we really need a debate, when the drama back in Washington is such an interesting substitute?
"Lawmakers were caught between growing popular outrage over the notion of funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street tycoons and dire warnings of economic apocalypse if they do nothing," Helen Kennedy reports for the New York Daily News. "Unusual battle lines were being drawn: Most Senate Republicans and the White House joined most Democrats in backing a modified bailout, while House Republicans wanted to thwart it."
(Any questions as to why McCain has not pursued a career in congressional leadership?)
This is too easy for Democrats: "McCain only hurt this process," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"A lot of mavericks don't know a lot," said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., per ABC's Matthew Jaffe.
"I think Senator McCain's involvement is sort of a blip. He hasn't been involved in this, and now if there is some discussion about putting this off and I don't think that we can do that," Pelosi, D-Calif., told ABC's Chris Cuomo on "Good Morning America" Friday. "I think the meeting was disruptive of the negotiations that were going on and the place that we were. . . . It will happen because it has to happen."
McCain is still hoping for a breakthrough -- and look closely and you can see the spin starting, in case it doesn't come: "I believe that it's very possible that we can get an agreement so that -- in time for me to fly to Mississippi," McCain told ABC's Charles Gibson. "I also wish Senator Obama had agreed to 10 or more town hall meetings that I had asked him to attend with me. Wouldn't be quite that much urgency if he agreed to do that, instead he refused to do it."
Up next: "Members of Congress and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson are expected to return to Capitol Hill this morning to try to revive a $700 billion bailout plan as it became the focus of partisan finger-pointing and attacks on the presidential nominees after a meeting at the White House," per ABC's Jake Tapper, Charles Herman, Z. Byron Wolf, and Dean Norland.
Bloomberg's Alison Vekshin and James Rowley have the details of the plan being pushed by Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.: "Republican lawmakers offered a plan calling for Wall Street firms to purchase insurance on mortgage-backed securities and advocating tax cuts and relaxed regulations. Treasury officials had previously rejected a plan focusing on insurance in favor of one that purchased troubled assets, Cantor said."
This is how gambles work -- they don't all pay off. "John McCain's high-stakes bet that his return to Washington could help solve the nation's financial crisis may end up complicating both his presidential campaign and a government bailout agreement," Edwin Chen and Julianna Goldman write for Bloomberg. "McCain now has a battle on three fronts, and only one of them involves Obama: He opposes many aspects of the administration's bailout plan. And he's working to quell an uprising among Republican conservatives in the House."
"John McCain's self-appointed mission to rescue the Wall Street bailout plan teetered on the edge of fiasco," the New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff and Richard Sisk write. "While Bush was trying to bring parties together, McCain took sides with House Republicans against the President's proposal, according to his campaign's statement."
Still, a possibility: "McCain's move could serve to jolt House Republicans into stepping up support for the plan today -- if only to speed McCain's way to Mississippi tomorrow night," Time's Michael Duffy reports.
"What remained unclear was whether Thursday's breakdown marked the beginning of the end for the rescue effort, or merely a tumultuous interlude on the way to approving a federal bailout that many in Congress consider unpalatable but unavoidable," write Richard Simon, Maura Reynolds and Nicole Gaouette of the Los Angeles Times. "There were signs that, behind the scenes, skeptical Democrats and Republicans were beginning to move toward a compromise version of Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson's original plan, but it remained to be seen whether there would be enough votes to pass legislation."
What's really behind the revolt? "Challengers are beginning to hammer congressional incumbents for backing Wall Street moguls over Main Street taxpayers in the evolving investment-industry bailout effort, further complicating Capitol Hill efforts to rescue the economy," Ralph Z. Hallow writes for the Washington Times.
McCain's task (since he chose to accept it): "Boehner and the White House -- and McCain -- if they want to get something passed -- do have the responsibility to persuade these Republicans to support the bailout," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder blogs. "After all, if not to get these recalcitrant Republicans on board, why did McCain go to Washington in the first place?"
Would this even work? "Democrats think that Republicans were backing away from a compromise many of them agreed to earlier Thursday -- without McCain's involvement -- in order to give McCain time to play a role and perhaps appear as a rescuer," McClatchy's David Lightman and Margaret Talev write.
Perceptions matter: "It is probably unfair to say that John McCain's decision to steer the presidential race off the campaign trail and into the White House jinxed the deal to bail out the nation's troubled economy," The Nation's John Nichols writes. "Then again . . . "
Another skeptic (in case there's still room): "Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said today that our nation's leaders -- especially President Bush -- are 'in a panic' and haven't thought through the $700 billion bailout plan in a rush to pass it by the end of the week," per ABC's Scott Mayerowitz. Said O'Neill: "I don't think he understands or knows much about any of this and it shows."
McCain learns that even the high road is bumpy: "The campaigns also sparred over whether McCain had really suspended politicking while talks are underway on the bailout deal," Kathy Kiely and David Jackson write in USA Today. "McCain campaign aides such as Nancy Pfotenhauer and Tucker Bounds did cable television interviews, while vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin toured Ground Zero in New York City."
Bad optics: "Just hours after Sen. John McCain made a surprise announcement Wednesday that he was temporarily suspending his presidential campaign to help work out a bipartisan deal in Congress on the financial crisis, his campaign manager Rick Davis dined with about a dozen top New York-based fundraisers at the chic 21 Club in Manhattan," National Journal's Peter Stone reports.
Another dimension: "McCain's high-wire intervention in the financial crisis is his latest showstopper move -- and his riskiest. He might succeed, but the candidate's penchant for the dramatic has also raised anew potentially damaging questions of his age, executive abilities and, most of all, his temperament," Politico's Ben Smith and Glenn Thrush report. "McCain's attempt to shift the argument from the economy to character has, perversely, given Democrats an opening to question his own fitness to lead."
"John McCain's move to suspend his campaign and TV spots and to dodge tonight's debate is a panic attack, not cagey tactics," Democratic strategist Dan Payne writes in his Boston Globe column.
"John McCain is rapidly making his temperament an inescapable issue in the presidential campaign. Does the nation really want so much drama in the White House?" columnist Eugene Robinson writes in The Washington Post.
"McCain's boisterous intervention -- and particularly his grandstanding on the debate -- was less a presidential act than the tactical ploy of a man worried that his chances of becoming president might be slipping away," columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. writes.
And something's happening in Oxford regardless of the choices McCain makes here on out:
"Obama campaign officials said the Illinois senator plans to appear at the University of Mississippi debate site on Friday, even if Sen. McCain doesn't joins him," Amy Chozick and Elizabeth Holmes write in The Wall Street Journal. "Sen. Obama remains open to the possibility of holding a town-hall style event during which he would take questions from audience members or moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS. Such an arrangement could give Sen. Obama a big advantage by providing him with a large televised audience."
"University officials, the major television networks and the nonpartisan commission sponsoring tonight's debate all indicated they would proceed on the assumption McCain would show up in the end. But the prospect he might skip the debate -- which would be unprecedented -- only elevated the political stakes," per Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times.
Some folks are ready for the show: "During certain times of the day, those walking across campus with press credentials and cameras outnumbered those carrying textbooks," Elizabeth Crisp writes for the Clarion Ledger. "McCain's staff also was still working here to advance the senator's visit. His wife, Cindy, has events scheduled today."
As for McCain's running mate -- one prominent conservative columnist has had enough. Kathleen Parker, who once called Sarah Palin's candidacy a "bright light," is now calling on her to withdraw.
"As we've seen and heard more from John McCain's running mate, it is increasingly clear that Palin is a problem. Quick study or not, she doesn't know enough about economics and foreign policy to make Americans comfortable with a President Palin should conditions warrant her promotion," Parker writes at TownHall.com. "It was fun while it lasted. Palin's recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League."
"Cut the verbiage and there's not much content there," she writes. No one would criticize a mother who puts her family first. Do it for your country."
What tipped the balance? Another interview she didn't knock out of the park.
An instant Palin classic, to Katie Couric, on why she cited her country's proximity to Russia as foreign-policy experience: "That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and on our other side, the land -- boundary that we have with - Canada. . . . It -- it's funny that a comment like that was -- kind of made to -- cari -- I don't know, you know?" (The word is "caricature.")
"While it is quite likely, and perhaps understandable, that Ms. Palin felt nervous and spooked by all the media attention, it wasn't a reassuring performance," The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley writes. "Ms. Palin looked more steady and confident when she took a few questions from reporters after a visit to ground zero in Lower Manhattan, her first, gingerly encounter with campaign reporters since her nomination."
The Los Angeles Times' James Rainey judges her to be "meandering off in fruitless pursuit of coherence."
Leave no talking point behind: "Where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out," Palin said. "But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. Um, helping, oh -- it's got to be all about job creation too. Shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track. So healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions, and tax relief for Americans, and trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, um, scary thing, but 1 in 5 jobs being created in the trade sector today."
Not done yet: "Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, describing the need for more troops in Afghanistan, said the United States has achieved 'victory' in Iraq," Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post. "It was an apparent misstep in Palin's third interview since agreeing to become Republican Sen. John McCain's running mate nearly one month ago."
Palin v. Kissinger: "Asked if she considers former Republican Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to be 'naïve' for supporting talks without preconditions, Palin said, 'I've never heard Henry Kissinger say, "Yeah, I'll meet with these leaders without preconditions being met," ' per ABC's Teddy Davis and Rigel Anderson. "Palin was overlooking that Kissinger (with whom she met earlier this week) has backed negotiating directly with Iran over its nuclear program and other bilateral issues -- a point which Couric reconfirmed at the closer of her interview."
At least she took questions on the trail. Asked whether she endorsed the reelection bids of Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young -- the long-time Republican incumbents from her home state -- she was statesmanlike: "We'll see where that goes." http://www.politico.com/blogs/jonathanmartin/0908/Palin_dodges_on_Stevens_and_Young_question_.html
More out of Alaska: "Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has made a crackdown on gift-giving to state officials a centerpiece of her ethics reform agenda, has accepted gifts valued at $25,367 from industry executives, municipalities and a cultural center whose board includes officials from some of the largest mining interests in the state, a review of state records shows," James V. Grimaldi and Robert O'Harrow Jr. write for The Washington Post.
Palin is a hit in some quarters: Tammy Haddad was there when she startled a group of prominent female leaders. "Palin declined to take political questions. But she did tell NEWSWEEK that she is still grateful to the Miss America pageant for the scholarship money, and revealed that her husband Todd judged the Miss Alaska Pageant this year, saying 'he loved it.' "
If and when there is a debate: "The senators' contrasting personas have been readily apparent throughout the campaign -- in appearances on the stump, in front of news cameras, and in numerous debates with party rivals during the primary season," per The Boston Globe's Scott Helman. "Obama exudes coolness and calm, but he can come off as smug and detached. McCain employs a folksy, from-the-gut approach but at times seems more like he is shooting from the hip."
On temperament: "However forceful and passionate Mr. Obama can be, his speeches and public appearances this week have underscored how he is sometimes out of sync with the visceral anger of Americans who are losing their jobs and homes," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times. "He often talks about growing up on food stamps and about having paid off his student loans only recently, yet his tone and volume, body language, facial expressions and words convey a certain distance from the ache that many voters feel."
"Whereas former Vice President Al Gore and Senator John Kerry struck populist tones during their presidential bids, Mr. Obama is having none of it. For better or worse, his performance in this time of financial peril goes to the heart of who he is," Healy writes.
Adding to the drama: "For McCain, the first challenge is to show up. That might help him avoid the first trap that the Obama campaign has been laying for him: portraying him as reckless," Slate's John Dickerson writes.
A counterpoint, from the New York Post's Charles Hurt: "Tonight's debate at Ole Miss has to be a game changer, or this election very well may be lost for good. But it's not John McCain who needs a knockout right now. It's Barack Obama who must redirect the trajectory of the whole race in tonight's sparring match."
We'd believe this story -- but since the McCain campaign has stripped The New York Times of its journalistic credentials, what to think?
"Mr. Obama began his own run of advertisements on radio and television that have matched the dubious nature of Mr. McCain's more questionable spots," Jim Rutenberg and Julie Bosman write in the Times. "A radio advertisement running in Wisconsin and other contested states misleadingly reports that Mr. McCain 'has stood in the way of' federal financing for stem cell research; Mr. McCain did once oppose such federally supported research but broke with President Bush to consistently support it starting in 2001 (his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, does not support it). A commercial running here on Thursday morning highlighting Mr. McCain's votes against incentives for alternative energy misleadingly asserts he supports tax breaks for 'one source of energy: oil companies.' "
A test for the cables: How much play does this get? "Liberal groups started airing commercials yesterday suggesting that 72-year-old John McCain is hiding a deadly illness," the New York Post's Daphne Retter reports. "The advertisement, created by Democracy for America and Brave New PAC, is currently running on MSNBC. The commercial includes two doctors with stethoscopes slung behind their necks, explaining the seriousness of melanoma, a skin cancer that McCain had removed eight years ago."
Another recall? "California Republicans who consider themselves the party's conservative 'conscience' will consider bucking their own party's governor this weekend to endorse the proposed recall of Arnold Schwarzenegger," per the Sacramento Bee. "The board of directors of the California Republican Assembly will gather during the state party's convention in Anaheim for the recall vote."
"I think we will see many more UFOs before this election is over." -- Tom Brokaw, at an Ole Miss forum, predicting that the debate will go off Friday -- and that more surprises are in store this campaign.
"His brisket is beyond -- it's beyond." -- Comedian Sarah Silverman, challenging Jewish voters to convince their Florida-residing grandparents to support Barack Obama, in "The Great Schlep."
I'll be live-blogging the debate (if it happens) from Oxford, Miss., and anchoring ABC NewsNOW pre- and post-debate coverage. Check it out HERE.
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