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?)