NEW YORK (AP) - Republican presidential nominee John McCain challenged rival Barack Obama on Wednesday to suspend their heated campaign, postpone Friday's debate and work together to deal with the nation's financial troubles.
Obama did not immediately respond to his rival's surprising political move, but campaign officials said the senator is inclined to move ahead with the debate. The dueling statements came after the two senators spoke privately, each trying to portray himself as the bipartisan leader at a time of crisis.
But McCain beat Obama to the punch with the first public statement, saying the Bush administration's Wall Street bailout plan seemed headed for defeat and a bipartisan solution was urgently needed. If not, McCain said ominously, credit will dry up, people will no longer be able to buy homes, life savings will be at stake and businesses will not have enough money to pay workers.
The move was an effort by the Republican to claim leadership on an issue that has been troublesome for him at a time when his rival is moving ahead in the polls.
McCain said he would put politics aside and return to Washington Thursday to focus on the nation's financial problems after addressing former President Clinton's Global Initiative session in New York. He also canceled his planned appearance Wednesday on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" program.
McCain said he had spoken to President Bush and asked him to convene a leadership meeting in Washington that would include him and Obama.
"It has become clear that no consensus has developed to support the administration's proposal," McCain said. "I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time."
McCain said he has spoken to Obama about his plans and asked the Democratic presidential nominee to join him.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid issued a statement saying the debate should go on because "we need leadership, not a campaign photo op." Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., agreed that the debate should go forward and argued that McCain's return to Washington may not preserve the nonpartisan atmosphere he said is needed to find a way out of the crisis.
"He'll be bringing the presidential campaign with him to Washington," Durbin said of McCain on the Senate floor. "Bringing in all the lights and cameras to Capitol Hill, bringing the campaign here, is not going to be the answer."
The University of Mississippi said it was going forward with preparation for the debate in Oxford. "We are ready to host the debate, and we expect the debate to occur as planned," the school said, adding that it had received no notification of any change in the timing or venue.
The Obama and McCain campaign put out statements describing the timeline of private talks that led up to McCain's challenge.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement that Obama had called McCain around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday to propose that they issue a joint statement in support of a package to help fix the economy as soon as possible. Later, McCain spokesman Brain Rogers said in his own statement that although Obama called in the morning, he couldn't reach McCain and did not leave a message about what he wanted to discuss.
McCain called back six hours later and agreed to the idea of the statement, Burton said, and McCain's statement was issued to the media a few minutes later. But Rogers said it was McCain who "asked Senator Obama to join him in returning to Washington to lead a bipartisan effort to solve this problem."
McCain's statement was an effort to show leadership on an issue that has spread economic fears across the country and overshadowed the presidential campaign just six weeks from Election Day. Recent polls showed Obama with an advantage with voters in handling the economy.
McCain running mate Sarah Palin said in an interview with CBS Evening News Wednesday that the country could be headed for another Great Depression if Congress doesn't reach a solution.
McCain adviser Mark Salter initially said the senator would suspend all advertising and campaign events until a workable deal is reached on the bailout proposal - but only if the Obama campaign agreed to do the same. But later, McCain adviser Steve Schmidt said McCain would move ahead regardless of whether Obama agrees.
The move put Obama in a bind. Rejecting the idea would allow McCain alone to appear above politics, but agreeing to suspend campaigning and the debate could make Obama look like he's following McCain's lead.
McCain has struggled with how to handle the financial situation, which he might escape with modest political damage if he and Obama could reach some type of accord on the matter.
Scores of congressional Republicans have hinted this week they may oppose the proposed $700 billion bailout even though it is Bush's priority. Reid pointedly suggested that Democratic lawmakers could not be expected to back it if McCain did not publicly do so.
That leaves McCain with two unpalatable choices. He can oppose a major Republican initiative that the administration says is essential to preventing a full-blown recession, and risk heavy blame if the prediction comes true. Or he can vote for an extraordinarily costly bailout, which many Americans seem to resent, just when polls show him falling farther behind Obama.
Several GOP lawmakers and strategists said they see no way that McCain can oppose the main elements of the bailout plan and present himself as a bold leader. He must say, "we need to get this done for the future of our country," said John Feehery, a former aide to top Republican lawmakers. "Country first," Feehery said, noting McCain's campaign slogan.
But McCain might reap few political rewards for such a move.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said he has not found any Republican colleagues who say the proposed bailout "is popular in their district."
Of course, Obama also risks angry voter reactions if he supports the bailout plan. But he could frame his stand as bipartisan statesmanship, whereas McCain's vote could be spun as another example of his siding with Bush, a major impediment to his campaign.