Washington: John McCain is going all-in on the biggest bet of a political career marked by instinctive gambles, seeking new life for his White House bid in the political convulsions set off by the finance crisis.
Citing the bravado of an “old navy pilot,” the Republican plunged into efforts to frame a huge bailout for teetering Wall Street, injecting volatile presidential politics into an already delicate congressional process.
By early Friday McCain’s move had left the day’s crucial first presidential debate against Democrat Barack Obama in limbo and brought the presidential race to a standstill, just 40 days before election day.
Freezing the election campaign, reducing it to a bitter partisan fight and running out the clock all clearly help McCain, with Obama apparently pulling away as voters warmed to his handling of the crisis.
But some observers have suggested McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign and head to Washington betrayed desperation.
It was not the first time that a long-odds McCain bet has shifted the dynamic of the race.
The Arizona senator limited Obama’s polling bounce and squashed talk of the spectacular Democratic convention finale with his shock selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate four weeks ago.
McCain hopes to emerge from this political power play with credit for driving the $700-billion bailout into law, to be seen as bringing rival factions together and burnishing his credentials as a maverick and reformer.
But the downside risk is also huge; if McCain is blamed for scuppering a deal and the stock markets tank, taking the life savings of Americans with them, his presidential bid may be doomed.
Democrats are already trying to portray McCain as a rash gambler unfit for the highest office. Senator Barbara Boxer said he was clearly “under stress,” while Senator Claire McCaskill warned he was “erratic.”
President George W. Bush’s administration led by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke failed late Thursday night to close a gap over the bailout with conservative Republicans in Congress.
The holdouts oppose throwing hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money into a big government buyout of the debt-crippled finance industry—what they see as a reward for bad Wall Street behaviour.
It is uncertain whether McCain has aligned himself with the group, as Democrats said, or was actively trying to win them over as his campaign maintains.
“The problem right now is that any rescue package has to pass by a majority vote,” said McCain senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt.
“There is not yet a majority of Democrats and Republicans who are willing to vote yes for anything.”
Obama, who sat a few feet away from McCain in an unprecedented White House meeting called by Bush on the crisis, blamed McCain’s parachute into Washington for wrecking a deal Democrats had announced had been struck hours earlier.
“Sometimes if you inject presidential politics into some delicate negotiations, it’s not necessarily constructive,” the Democrat told NBC News.
“It’s amazing how much people can get done when folks aren’t worried about taking the credit or passing the blame.”
In this intense game of political poker, McCain faced another gamble on Friday. Should he show up at the debate in Mississippi, or stick to his position that the crisis was too dire for the show to go on?
Obama is adamant that he will show up for the debate, so a decision by McCain to stay away would be a gamble of spectacular proportions as it is tough to calculate voter response to such a move.
McCain is no stranger to the political high-wire act.
He backed the idea of pouring more troops into Iraq, when almost everyone else in Washington was looking for a way get them out.
His gamble paid off as most observers believe the US surge strategy quelled soaring violence in Iraq and bolstered McCain politically. Its long-term impact is still to be judged, however.
One occasion when McCain’s flair for risk did not pay off was with his backing for comprehensive immigration reform. The failure of the bill last year left him politically embarrassed and damaged him with Republican conservatives.