WASHINGTON - John McCain and Barack Obama say presidential politics should have no role in the government's efforts to save the crippled financial system. Yet, each is playing his own politics toward the same goals — showing leadership during crisis, getting credit for any solutions, and, ultimately, winning the presidency.
The latest example: a debate over whether the candidates should debate Friday.
McCain called for his Democratic rival to agree to a postponement until Congress agrees on a $700 billion government plan to rescue banks from enormous debt, saying, "We are running out of time."
Obama rebuffed his GOP rival, saying the next president needs to "deal with more than one thing at once."
Both were heading back to Washington on Thursday, summoned by President Bush to attend a White House meeting with congressional leaders in hopes of securing the legislation to rescue the fragile economy.
The stakes were huge for both presidential contenders: The financial upheaval has become an audition of sorts as each man tries to prove to voters that he would exhibit the best judgment and leadership during a national crisis.
Portraying himself as a bipartisan leader in a time of turmoil, each is carefully navigating the potentially perilous political terrain. Both candidates are trying hard not to appear to be using the situation for political gain — even though politics certainly weighs heavily in every move each makes.
Voters — including the 18 percent an AP-Yahoo News poll found are undecided or still could change their minds — certainly are paying close attention with the election little more than five weeks away. And the candidates' postures may tell them a lot about how each would act as president.
Polls show the race competitive, with Obama having a slight advantage in a political landscape that dramatically favors Democrats and appears to be further trending toward them in part because of the intense focus on the economy. Obama leads McCain on that issue.
Neither candidate can afford to simply support fast-tracked legislation; they could be seen as insensitive to taxpayers' concerns about the massive bailout and sweeping government intervention. But they also can't be seen as doing nothing by opposing the measure outright; many economists warn that failing to address the crisis in a meaningful way could plunge the economy into further chaos.
McCain also would certainly leave himself open to criticism that he was again siding with Bush if he supported the administration-backed legislation. However, he also could try to put his own stamp on a Republican Party going through somewhat of an identity crisis; congressional Republicans have suggested they are waiting for a signal from McCain on how to vote.
Both tried to strike a balance Wednesday.
In a brief moment of comity, the two issued a joint statement recognizing that the country was facing "a moment of economic crisis" in which "the jobs, savings and prosperity of the American people are at stake." They called the legislation flawed but also said it must not fail.
"Now is a time to come together — Democrats and Republicans — in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the American people," they said. "This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country."
But political maneuvering was exactly what went on during most of the day.
First, the two senators spoke privately about the possibility of issuing a joint statement.
Minutes later and before the two campaigns had hammered out their agreed-upon comment, McCain beat Obama to the punch as he sought to gain ground on the economy, stunt Obama's momentum and put himself in a position where he can claim he put his words into action — and the country ahead of his campaign.
The Republican went before TV cameras in New York to say that he had spoken to Bush and asked him to convene a leadership meeting in Washington that would include him and Obama. He said he would halt campaign events, advertising and fundraising to return to Capitol Hill to work on the crisis until an agreement on legislation was reached.
What's more, McCain called for Friday's debate to be postponed — and for Obama to curtail campaign activities as well.
Shortly thereafter, Obama held his own news conference to reject McCain's challenge.
The Democrat said he would continue with his debate preparations while consulting with bailout negotiators and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
In a political calculation of his own, Obama repeatedly stressed that he called McCain first with the proposal for a joint statement in support of an economic fix. He said McCain called back several hours later and agreed to the idea of a statement but also said he wanted to postpone the debate and hold joint meetings in Washington. Obama said he suggested they first issue the statement.