John McCain and Barack Obama are expected at the White House at 4 p.m. on Thursday, accepting President Bush's invitation to discuss the nation's financial turmoil with him and congressional leaders. The president mentioned the invitation in a televised speech on the economic crisis Wednesday, capping another topsy-turvy day in the long presidential campaign that left the first debate of the election, set for Friday, in question.
The McCain campaign suddenly called reporters to a Manhattan hotel Wednesday afternoon. He used a teleprompter, which is rare at such quick events, but it meant he had chosen his words carefully and could look right into the camera as he said Washington must do something about the crisis on Wall Street.
"If we do not, credit will dry up, with devastating consequences for our economy. People will no longer be able to buy homes, and their life savings will be at stake. Businesses will not have enough money to pay their employees. If we do not act, ever corner of our country will be impacted," McCain said.
He then announced that he would suspend his campaign and return to Washington after speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative on Thursday morning.
"I have spoken to Sen. Obama and informed him of my decision and have asked him to join me," McCain said. He said he had given up on Congress approving the Bush administration's bailout package as it stands, so he wanted to head to Washington and get to work.
As for Friday's debate in Mississippi, McCain said, "I am directing my campaign to work with the Obama campaign and the commission on presidential debates to delay Friday night's debate until we have taken action to address this crisis."
As McCain wrapped up the announcement, the focus shifted to Obama, who was campaigning in Florida. He hastily called a news conference and said he's still getting ready for the debate in Mississippi.
"This is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who, in approximately 40 days, will be responsible for dealing with this mess," Obama said. "And I think it is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."
Obama promised that if congressional leaders need his help in dealing with the financial crisis, he'll go anywhere anytime. He didn't suspend his campaign and said he wasn't worried about making the debate.
"We've both got big planes. We've painted our slogans on the sides of them. They can get us from Washington, D.C., to Mississippi fairly quickly," he said.
As Obama and McCain spoke, there was also a behind-the-scenes back and forth between the campaigns. According to aides on both sides, Obama called McCain in the morning to propose some kind of joint statement on the economy. Obama couldn't get through to McCain. But the Arizona senator got back to Obama in the afternoon and suggested that both candidates suspend their campaigns.
Recalling the exchange, Obama said he suggested that they issue a joint statement first and then have their staffs discuss the issue. "The only possible miscommunication might have been how quickly there was an announcement and somebody was on television. I think probably my assumption was that the joint statement would go out initially," he said.
The joint statement did finally come, Wednesday night. Obama and McCain called this a moment to rise above politics and "prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country."
Both candidates plan to be at the White House meeting Thursday to discuss the administration's $700 billion rescue proposal for Wall Street. From there, the course is unclear. McCain's campaign said the Arizona senator will debate Friday only if there's a deal in place. But the debate organizers in Mississippi said the debate is on, as far as they're concerned.