Economy takes center stage ahead of foreign policy debate

— -- Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are trying to influence the course of the Bush administration's Wall Street bailout plan as they prepare for their first debate this week.

The two presidential candidates meet Friday night at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. While the scheduled topic is foreign affairs, the nation's financial mess may also surface.

"The Bush Administration has only offered a concept with a staggering price tag, not a plan," Obama said Sunday in North Carolina. He called the initial outlay of $700 billion "sobering."

In Maryland, McCain said Sunday that any plan "must keep people in their homes and safeguard the life savings of all Americans by protecting our financial system and capital markets." On Saturday, he said he looked forward to "reviewing the full administration proposal."

Obama, in his Charlotte, appearance and in a separate "statement of principles," laid out a series of conditions Sunday that he says the plan must meet.

The first four: no blank check "when American taxpayers are on the hook for this much money," not a dime to reward Wall Street CEOs, taxpayers should be able recoup their investment and homeowners must be helped.

Additionally, Obama said other nations must help secure financial markets, new 21st century "rules of the road" must be put in place for financial institutions, and Congress should pass a stimulus plan to save jobs and help states avoid fiscal pain.

McCain spoke mainly about Iraq and veterans' health care during a speech Sunday to the National Guard Association in Baltimore. But he also mentioned he has a plan for "comprehensive reform of the broken institutions that allowed this crisis to become a grave threat to our economy."

Last week, McCain made some of his own proposals, including creation of a Mortgage and Financial Institutions Trust, designed "to identify institutions that are weak and take remedies to strengthen them before they become insolvent."

Congress is expected to vote on the administration bailout plan this week. Neither campaign would say if the candidates would interrupt their week to fly to Washington and vote, or how they might vote on a final plan.

Obama heads for Tampa on Tuesday to start debate preparations, with Gregory Craig, a former State Department official, on tap to play McCain.

The Florida locale is strategic. Obama, making a play to recapture a state Democrats lost in 2000 and 2004, is planning at least one public appearance every day he is there. His campaign recently said he will spend $39 million in the state.

McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker declined to comment on specifics of the GOP nominee's debate preparation. She said the campaign doesn't discuss "process" or "strategy."

It does not appear that McCain will conduct the kind of "debate camp" used by Obama as well as previous presidential candidates. He has appearances scheduled the next three days in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and New York City, where the United Nations General Assembly opens this week. McCain will meet Wednesday with the leaders of Georgia, Ukraine and India. On Thursday, he is scheduled to be address the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Jockeying to set debate expectations was already underway on Sunday. Obama spokesman Bill Burton said McCain has boasted about "his decades of Washington foreign policy experience," so "anything short of a game-changing event will be a key missed opportunity for him."

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds cited Obama's experience and ability during the Democratic primary debates.

"It's likely that Obama will be quite impressive in this debate," Bounds said. "We do not have three down days scheduled."

Candidates slug through Wall Street mess

During a tumultuous week on Wall Street and in Washington, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama struggled to keep up. A day-by-day look at the events and what the candidates said:

Source: Reported by David Jackson and Jill Lawrence