The nation's ongoing financial crisis has thrown the presidential campaign into a combination of chaos and limbo, with John McCain and Barack Obama scrambling to show leadership, judgment, and political cunning even while they try to gain an advantage in the race for the White House.
Neither candidate wants to endorse any deal that looks like a giveaway to big investors and CEOs, but at the same time neither wants to reject an agreement that seems necessary to avoid an economic free fall.
Despite initial skepticism on Capitol Hill, congressional leaders seem increasingly inclined to accept the $700 billion proposal offered by President Bush's administration to rescue Wall Street, with some important modifications to help financially strapped Middle Americans and to limit executive compensation.
Bush's brief address to the nation on the crisis Wednesday night added another voice to the chorus of political and financial-industry leaders calling for quick approval of the bailout, even though Bush's persuasiveness has eroded badly because his job-approval rating is so low—hovering at or below 30 percent.
Bush argued that failure to enact the plan would result in a "painful recession"—with bank failures, more foreclosures, millions of jobs lost, and other dire consequences.
He invited Democrat Obama and Republican McCain to join him and congressional leaders at the White House Thursday to negotiate a compromise and "safeguard the financial security of America."
In political terms, the stakes for the rival candidates are enormous in how they handle this crisis. Their actions in the next few days could decide who wins the exceedingly close presidential race in November.
As the economic crisis has deepened in the past week, Obama has edged upward in the opinion polls. But both sides say the contest remains volatile and could turn on a dime—or on $700 billion.
McCain is following a now familiar pattern—trying to demonstrate decisiveness while attempting to throw Obama off balance with a series of tactical maneuvers.
McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign until a deal is struck in Washington. He also urged a postponement in the presidential debate between the two major-party candidates long scheduled for Friday night in Oxford, Miss.
While McCain said he wasn't being political, and wanted to focus on getting the best deal for the taxpayers, Democrats accused him of gamesmanship. They noted that he has tried such tactics before, which they called diversions from the big issues of the campaign. Among the diversionary gambits that his critics cited were his choice of little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, his campaign's regular berating of the news media for alleged bias, and his day-to-day sniping at Obama over Obama's refusal to join him in a series of town meetings and over a series of other issues.
For his part, Obama is trying to show patience and solid judgment and not be drawn into rash decisions. He wants to keep the presidential race focused on big themes, especially the need for change and the fact that the Republicans have controlled the White House for nearly eight years and, he says, deserve the blame for the current economic mess.
Obama says it's important for the debate on Friday night to proceed because Americans need clarity on where the two major-party candidates stand as Election Day approaches.