Obama – McCain debate set to take off despite McCain’s hesitation

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Organisers at Ole’ Miss, the University of Mississippi, forged ahead on Thursday with preparations for tonight’s crucial first debate of the 2008 US presidential campaign still awaiting the final word that it would go ahead.

By Harvey Morris in Washington

John McCain, the Republican candidate, pulled out on Wednesday, announcing his intention to suspend his campaign and return to Washington to help foster a bipartisan solution to the financial crisis.

It was a gesture interpreted as either statesmanlike or opportunistic, depending on the viewpoints of commentators.

Barack Obama, the Democrat, who was in Washington to discuss the US financial bail-out plan with President George W. Bush and Mr McCain, insisted his first one-on-one televised encounter with his rival should proceed on schedule.

After Washington, he said, he would be heading to the university’s Oxford campus. “Our economy is in crisis and our nation is fighting two wars abroad,” he said. “The times are too serious to put our campaign on hold or to ignore the full range of issues that the next president will face.”

Mr McCain promised to join him there as long as a deal on a financial package to bail out financial institutions was reached in time.

Mr Obama’s message has been that would-be presidents should have the ability to tackle more than one issue at the same time.

Bill Clinton, the former Democratic president, was among those who gave Mr McCain the benefit of the doubt over his call to reschedule the debate, telling ABC News: “I presume he did that in good faith.”

But some commentators said Mr McCain might be happy to avoid such a crucial encounter at the end of a week in which his standing in opinion polls has fallen, apparently as a result of his initial uncertain re­sponse to the financial crisis.

Mr McCain’s suggestion that the Mississippi encounter could be put off until next week, replacing a scheduled encounter between Sarah Palin, his running mate, and Joseph Biden, Democratic vice-presidential nominee, would give her more time to hone her international affairs knowledge ahead of a debate with a foreign policy heavyweight.

The first Obama-McCain debate is seen as crucial to setting the tone for the remaining month and a half of the campaign. The Obama camp pressed for it to focus on foreign affairs as scheduled, seen as a potential vote-winner for Mr McCain. But that would allow the Democrat to keep his strong point, the economy, for a debate closer to election day.

Those plans, like the campaign itself, have been overturned by the financial crisis and it would now be impossible for the candidates to avoid reference to the economic situation.

About 65m Americans were expected to watch the prime-time debate and the numbers could be higher, given intense public reactions to the week’s events. Talk shows and media blogs have been inundated with comments from their audiences, with many expressing anger at the concept of bailing out banks at taxpayer expense.

Friday’s presidential debate would be the first of three. There will also be a town hall meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 7 and a campus debate in New York state a week later.

The University of Mississippi said it would go ahead with its preparations as planned.

“We have been notified by the Commission on Presidential Debates that we are proceeding as scheduled,” said a statement from the Oxford campus.

The Financial Times

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