Republican John McCain placed phone calls to President Bush and Republican congressional leaders Saturday to help steer a bailout of failed financial institutions. His campaign and that of rival Barack Obama also sought to steer perception of the first presidential debate.
The two candidates sparred over foreign policy and the economy — including the $700 billion proposal to stabilize U.S. markets being considered by Congress — in a 90-minute televised forum Friday at the University of Mississippi.
Neither candidate decisively won the debate nor committed any game-changing gaffe. But that didn't prevent each campaign from proclaiming victory and spending much of Saturday trying to shape the perception of the forum in the days going forward.
Obama's campaign quickly produced an advertisement criticizing McCain for never uttering the term "middle class" in the debate. Campaign manager David Plouffe held a conference call with reporters where he called McCain's efforts to paint Obama as inexperienced on foreign affairs "sophomoric."
McCain harshly criticized Obama's debate performance Saturday in a speech to the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance.
"It wasn't such a good night for my opponent," McCain said, saying among other things that Obama was trying to use the looming market meltdown for political gain.
"It was clear that Senator Obama still sees the financial crisis in America as a national problem to be exploited first and solved later," McCain said.
Ad uses Biden against Obama
His campaign also readied a spot on a topic that came up in the debate: Obama's vote in 2007 against funding troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ad uses the words of Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, against him, saying the Illinois senator had been trying to make a political point by voting in 2007 against a funding bill for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Biden will debate GOP vice presidential contender Sarah Palin Thursday at Washington University in St. Louis.
McCain flew to Washington from Mississippi to resume work on the bailout, arriving shortly before dawn. Obama continued his campaign schedule, appearing at rallies in North Carolina and Virginia.
After making a dramatic entrance on Capitol Hill Thursday to be part of the bailout negotiations, McCain stayed away Saturday as lawmakers inched toward an agreement. He made phone calls to the White House and GOP leaders from his suburban condominium and later at campaign headquarters.
Aides said that in addition to Bush, McCain spoke with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, and about a dozen influential Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rep. Eric Cantor, a leader of a House GOP effort to craft an alternative plan.
While the Arizona senator has repeatedly insisted the dire financial crisis was a time for leadership and not politics, Friday's debate — and its potential impact on the presidential campaign going forward — was clearly on his mind.
"I was a little disappointed the media called it a tie. But I think that means when they call it a tie that means we win," McCain told Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering after speaking to him about the bailout deal pending in Congress, one of a handful of calls McCain was heard making when campaign aides briefly allowed reporters in to see him.
'Trying to help the taxpayer'
McCain also spoke to New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson, saying "I know this is a tough struggle today on this package." He told her it was imperative to reach a deal this weekend before markets open Monday.
"I know you're going to be trying to help the taxpayer and that's the important thing," McCain said.
The Obama campaign needled McCain for staying away from direct engagement on Capitol Hill. "Now the McCain campaign says he can negotiate the bailout by phone?" campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor asked.
McCain senior strategist Mark Salter defended the decision, saying McCain "can effectively do what he needs to do by phone."
McCain jolted the political world Wednesday when he announced he would forego most campaign activities to work on the rescue deal. He hinted he might not participate in Friday's debate with Obama if a deal weren't reached, but he changed his mind and flew to Mississippi within hours of the event.
Aides said McCain had decided to go to the debate because he was satisfied a framework for an agreement was in place.
Salter said Saturday he and other aides were very pleased with McCain's performance.
"It was a very tough debate but I don't think our candidate went over the line," Salter said, adding that McCain "stayed on offense in a respectful way."
McCain's decision to inject presidential politics into the bailout negotiations received decidedly mixed reviews.
Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid complained that McCain's presence had helped derail a potential deal. McCain aides and some congressional Republicans said he had helped the process by allowing Cantor and other House Republicans the chance to present their alternative plan.