WASHINGTON (AP) - Hours before the premiere presidential debate was scheduled to begin Friday night, Republican John McCain's attendance was still in doubt as Congress and the Bush administration continued to negotiate a Wall Street bailout plan.
McCain met briefly Friday morning with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, before heading to his campaign headquarters. He has pledged to stay in Washington to work on a deal that would address the financial crisis, even if it meant postponing the debate.
But there were signs McCain was looking for a face-saving way to make the debate, even if a deal wasn't sealed. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., McCain's representative in debate negotiations, suggested that McCain would find some way to make it to the event scheduled for 9 p.m. EDT at the University of Mississippi.
"What's more important than anything that when we go to Mississippi tonight, both candidates can say that the Congress is working, back in business, that we have an outline or proposal that will protect the taxpayer and save the country from financial Pearl Harbor, as Warren Buffet called it," Graham said on "Today" on NBC. "We are not there yet, but we will get there."
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said Friday morning "we are hopeful" McCain would be able to attend.
His rival, Democrat Barack Obama, was preparing to fly out of Washington late Friday morning. Obama said he and McCain should be able to handle the 90-minute forum and the financial crisis at the same time.
"Sen. McCain has no need to be fearful about a debate," Obama told reporters Thursday night. "He's a person of strong opinions and he's been expressing them on the campaign trail."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a McCain supporter, said the Republican made a "huge mistake" by even discussing canceling the debate.
"You can't just say, 'World, stop for a moment. I'm going to cancel everything,"' Huckabee told reporters Thursday night in Alabama before attending a benefit for the University of Mobile. He said it's more important for voters to hear from the presidential candidates than for them to huddle with fellow senators in Washington.
Both McCain and Obama had returned to Washington on Thursday at the urging of President Bush, who invited them to a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House. But a session aimed at showing unity in resolving the financial crisis broke up with conflicts in plain view.
McCain's campaign said the meeting "devolved into a contentious shouting match" and implied that Obama was at fault - on a day when McCain said he was putting politics aside to focus on the nation's financial problems.
Democrats differed, saying the refusal of McCain and other Republicans to support the plan worked out by congressional negotiators was creating a road block.
"The insertion of presidential politics has not been helpful," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday.
Meanwhile, debate preparations continued in Oxford, with streets blocked off and big TV screens set up on campus and near City Hall for large debate-watching parties. Aides to both candidates toured the Gertrude Castellow Ford Center where it was to be held to get a feel for the setup.
McCain's wife, Cindy, canceled her scheduled appearances Friday in Oxford to stay in Washington with her husband. She had planned to attend an event to raise awareness of autism, work on assembling donations for troubled children with the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and sit for local media interviews.
The Obama campaign announced that the candidate's wife, Michelle, would attend the debate with Shannon Kendall of New Mexico, the wife of a soldier serving his second tour in Iraq. And they encouraged supporters to attend debate watching parties scheduled in communities across the country.
Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglass said Friday morning that there have been no conversations with the McCain campaign on the Republican's plans. She said she didn't know how the debate commission would structure the event if McCain's a no-show, but "we would anticipate participating in some kind of event."
Television network officials were left with the uncertainty of whether their Friday night programming would be the scheduled debate or something else arranged at the last minute. Pressed in an interview on the "CBS Evening News" about whether he would show, McCain responded: "I understand how important this debate is and I'm very hopeful, but I also have to put the country first."
Obama told NBC that, should the debate go on, he would raise the economy even though the focus was supposed to be foreign policy.