Monday, September 29, 2008

McCain being McCain: new gambit or another payoff?

By Jeff Mason - Analysis

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - It could be the move that secures or destroys his White House hopes.

John McCain's decision last week to suspend his campaign and return to Washington to help broker a Wall Street bailout deal drew scorn from Democrats and praise from some Republicans, who saw a chance for the Arizona senator to show his "maverick" style and ability to work with both parties.

The results did not turn out exactly as planned.

The Republican presidential candidate became an immediate target for the opposing party, which blamed him for torpedoing a bill, and a bipartisan meeting with President George W. Bush and rival Barack Obama ended in chaos.

So McCain retreated. He flew to Mississippi to debate Obama after first threatening to skip the event and then came back to Washington to work the phones and maneuver behind the scenes.

By Monday a deal was in place and McCain, after nearly a week without public campaign events, returned to the campaign trail with a trip to Ohio.

Was it worth it?

"In the short run it has not helped him," said Andrew Busch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"In fact, if you look at all of the daily tracking polls, he's lost a considerable amount of ground just over the last few days," he said.

Time to make up that decline is getting short. With just over a month to go before the November 4 election, McCain may not have many more dramatic moves left in his arsenal.

But aides played down the political ramifications and, even as the senator carefully deflected credit, said his intervention made a difference in forming a plan that fellow Republicans -- especially in the House of Representatives -- could accept.

"There is a point sometimes when a process is broken that presence matters, and McCain brought presence to this that was important," said senior economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

"You literally cannot phone that in, and he didn't."

In some ways he did, making some 17 phone calls on Saturday alone, according to an adviser, while trying to stay out of the limelight that caused havoc upon his initial return.


Obama's campaign, relishing an uptick in the polls, painted McCain's response to the financial crisis as erratic compared to the Illinois senator's more measured approach.

"McCain has kind of been all over the lot, very erratic," the Illinois senator's campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters on Saturday. "Barack Obama has been very steady."

Not so, said McCain's advisers, emphasizing his willingness to take political risks compared to Obama's cautious instinct.

"It's easy enough to stay out on the campaign trail. You have no accountability for whether anything happens or not in Washington," said independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a McCain confidant and the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

"But that's not John McCain," Lieberman said. "He took the risk, he came back, and it looks like his efforts as well as a lot of others are going to bring us to a rescue plan that can save the American economy."

Saving the economy will be key for McCain's political prospects as well. Aides stressed that there was no deal on a bailout bill when McCain arrived in Washington and took umbrage at Democratic attempts to pin initial failures on him.

On Sunday Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican and a chief negotiator of the deal, said both McCain and Obama had helped.

"The most constructive thing they did was coming here last Thursday to focus not only our minds, Congress's minds, on getting something done, but more importantly (they) focused the American people's attention to the fact that this problem was serious and real," Gregg said.

If that impression resonates, McCain could recover from a poll dip that shows him around four to five percentage points behind Obama.

"It's conceivable that it will wind up helping him or being a wash," said Claremont McKenna's Busch.

"If that winds up being the case, and the markets calmed down and it's clearer that McCain did not actually blow up the negotiations, as some Democrats were alleging, then the public perception could turn around," Busch said. "But that's something that remains to be seen."

(Editing by David Wiessler)

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