Prospects were questionable at best that John McCain and Barack Obama would meet Friday for their first presidential debate as progress appeared to dissolve between Congress and the Bush administration on a $700 billion financial industry bailout.
McCain didn't plan to participate in the debate unless there was a consensus. Obama still wants the face-off to go on, arguing that Americans need to hear from the candidates. The Democrat was scheduled to travel to the debate site in Oxford, Miss., on Friday.
"I believe that it's very possible that we can get an agreement in time for me to fly to Mississippi," McCain said late Thursday. "I understand how important this debate is and I'm very hopeful. But I also have to put the country first."
In turn, Obama said: "It is my intention to be in Mississippi and obviously the biggest priority is making sure that we get this deal done. But I also think it's important to describe to the American people where the next president wants to take the country and how he's going to deal with this crisis."
Both candidates made the rounds on network evening news programs after meeting on the crisis with President Bush and bipartisan congressional leaders at the White House. McCain did not participate in late-night negotiations on Capitol Hill but worked the phones from his Virginia home. A senior McCain official said McCain hasn't signed on to any one proposal, though he does agree there needs to be a greater protection for taxpayers.
The debate over the debate is the latest campaign twist as McCain and Obama try to navigate the uncharted politics of the financial meltdown and show leadership at a time of national angst.
In Mississippi, debate organizers continued to prepare, and Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, told a news conference he expected the debate to go on. "This is going to be a great debate tomorrow night," Barbour said.
Television networks, too, said they were moving forward.
Presidential politics ran smack into the delicate discussions over how to stop further weakening the sagging economy.
As McCain returned to Washington at midday, Democratic and Republican negotiators emerged from a closed-door meeting to report an agreement in principle. An Obama campaign official said the Illinois senator called into the meeting. McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said McCain didn't participate, but held talks with Republican leaders afterward.
A few hours later, the rivals attended the private White House meeting, which officials in both parties described as contentious. They sat three seats away from the president, McCain to his right, Obama to his left. As the meeting broke up, it became apparent that any tentative agreement had started to dissolve.
Afterward, Obama said he tried to understand the objections to the approach being taken by congressional leaders and the Bush administration.
"The question I asked was, 'Well, do we need to start from scratch or are there ways to incorporate some of those concerns?"' Obama said. "At this point the president, the secretary of the Treasury and those who are expressing some of these concerns have to provide some clarity."
Several Republicans and Democrats briefed on the White House meeting said House Republican Leader John Boehner raised the concerns of some of his rank and file about the emerging plan, and McCain urged cooperation by all parties to craft a compromise proposal that would get enough support to pass the House and Senate.
McCain said he knew going in to the meeting that progress wasn't as far along as it seemed.
"There never was a deal, but I do believe the meeting was important to move the process along," McCain said. "It gave us a renewed sense of urgency and I'm confident we will move forward, and I'm confident that we will reach a conclusion."
Obama, for his part, held a news conference at a Washington hotel and suggested McCain was part of the problem.
"I'm not clear that in a very difficult situation like this that doing things in the spotlight and injecting presidential politics is necessarily useful," Obama said.
Before heading to Washington, both candidates spoke to President Clinton's Global Initiative - McCain in person in New York, Obama via satellite.
McCain again portrayed his announced halt to campaign events, fundraising and advertising as an example of putting the country before politics. But in doing so he also hoped to get political credit for a decisive step on a national crisis as polls show him trailing Obama on the economy and slipping in the presidential race.
Despite his stated hiatus, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, paid a highly visible visit to memorials in lower Manhattan to those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and McCain campaign aides appeared on news programs. Chief strategist Steve Schmidt said all television advertising was "down."
Industry officials said Obama's campaign was inquiring about buying airtime made available where McCain was absent. But McCain's campaign also has indicated to TV stations that it may soon return to the airwaves.
Obama's campaign derided McCain's claim to have halted activity as a political stunt.
Spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement: "John McCain hasn't suspended his campaign, he only wants us to suspend disbelief."
In turn, Schmidt said Obama was acting in "politically predatory fashion" by seeking McCain's abandoned air time.
Obama, for his part, didn't curtail any of his campaign activities. In fact, the Democrat also rolled out a new 60-second, TV ad in which he cited economic policies endorsed by Bush and McCain as essentially to blame for the troubles.
Burton said Schmidt's claim was "categorically false" and that the campaign has not bought any air time since McCain announced his "suspension." He said Obama's 60-second spot was replacing 30-second ads currently on the air.
"For eight years we've been told that the way to a stronger economy was to give huge tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest. Cut oversight on Wall Street. And somehow all Americans would benefit," Obama says in the ad. "Well now we know the truth."