McCain's Debate Gamble Could Backfire

It was one of Sen. John McCain's biggest gambles yet -- his decision to suspend his candidacy and withdraw from the first presidential debate to help forge a solution to the country's financial crisis.

But McCain's strategy appeared to be in tatters early today when he reversed course after 48 hours and agreed to debate Sen. Barack Obama tonight while lawmakers in Washington still wrangled over the proposed $700 billion bailout.

Several political strategists and analysts -- from both sides of the aisle -- voiced doubts today about this latest twist in McCain's campaign.

Instead of being hailed as a bold leader willing to risk his political fortunes for the good of the nation, McCain now risks being seen as just the opposite: a calculating politician who will try anything to win, they said.

"Right now, this is leaning more toward looking like a calculated political move on the part of Sen. McCain, and this runs contrary to the image he has tried to portray himself as -- someone who transcends partisanship and gets things done," said Scott McClellan, a former White House spokesman under President Bush.

McCain's Maneuver Puzzles Strategists

A veteran Republican strategist said, "Without the benefit of seeing their polling or having other inside information, this is a puzzling maneuver. [McCain] initially claimed the high ground, suspending his campaign, saying there was no time for politics, and then he resorted to politics, returning to the campaign before the crisis was resolved."

From the outset, McCain's gambit was riddled with political landmines. In trying to broker a deal, McCain opened himself to criticism of injecting presidential politics into delicate, high-stakes negotiations.

And he thrust himself between conservative Republicans reluctant to approve a massive and costly government intervention, and the White House, which has joined with Democratic leaders in Congress in viewing a bailout as essential to avoid chaos in the financial system.

Even if his gamble succeeded, McCain risked being closely identified with a deal that was bound to be unpopular with many Americans -- and that's if it worked. Some economists doubt a bailout would succeed.

Did McCain Help or Hurt the Deal?

When McCain attended an extraordinary White House summit Thursday with President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Obama and congressional leaders, to hash out a deal -- a meeting McCain had requested -- he appeared to play only a peripheral role, according to accounts of the sit-down.

Several Republicans said McCain has been a force behind the scenes, chiefly by pressing rebellious House Republicans on the need for a deal. McCain adviser Mike DuHaime told Fox News that McCain's involvement created "tremendous progress" toward a resolution.

Still, Democrats seized on the opportunity to belittle McCain's role. "I think Sen. McCain's involvement is sort of a blip," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., rendered a harsher verdict, declaring that McCain's role was "not helpful" and "hurt this process."

"You have to ask the question, 'Why was McCain there in the first place?'" said Cary Covington, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

"He is a member of the minority party, he is not on any relevant committees, and it was probably disadvantageous to the whole process to have the candidates there. I don't think it worked out the way he wanted it to," Covington said.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said, "There is another aspect to this: McCain has been trying to separate himself from Bush. Well, he is right back in the canoe with Bush, and Bush is doing the paddling."

McCain Campaign 'Living on the Edge'

A veteran Republican strategist, who asked not to be named, said the entire episode could be eclipsed by tonight's debate.

"If McCain does great in the debate, or he does miserably, everyone will forget the pregame festivities. The outcome of the debate will be the important thing," the strategist said.

But McClellan said the McCain campaign is at some risk.

"There is the potential for a very disastrous narrative to emerge for the McCain campaign over the course of the next week," McClellan said. "Couple this move with some of [vice presidential nominee] Sarah Palin's recent interviews -- her less-than-impressive performances -- and the vice presidential debate next week, and I would say the McCain campaign is very much living on the edge right now."