WASHINGTON — The question of whether U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain would go forward with their highly anticipated debate remained unresolved late Thursday after their White House meeting failed to conclusively produce an economic bailout agreement.
The recent turmoil in the financial markets is threatening to upend the campaign and scratch the first debate between Obama and McCain, set for Friday. McCain, who has asked for the debate to be delayed, said late Thursday he is hopeful that an agreement will be reached so he can attend it Friday in Mississippi.
"I understand how important this debate is and I'm very hopeful," McCain said late Thursday. "But I also have to put the country first."
Obama, speaking in a round of television interviews after the meeting with President Bush, said he hopes McCain will go ahead with their debate, saying on CNN: "My sense is that we can do more than one thing at a time."
He told NBC's "Nightly News" that he will raise the economy at the debate, even though its focus is supposed to be foreign policy.
"With this looming in the horizon, this has an effect all across the globe," he said. "We can't be strong abroad if we're not strong at home."
His comments came a day after McCain, in an extraordinary display of political maneuvering, announced on Wednesday he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington to help with the negotiations.
The heart of the enormous bailout plan involves the government buying up sour assets of shaky financial firms, action designed to keep essential credit markets open and preventing what some fear would be an economic calamity not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Obama criticized lawmakers who are holding up a deal on the $700 billion financial bailout plan, saying they need to clarify their objections so an agreement can be reached that will save the economy from further damage.
Obama said he left thinking they will reach a deal, but some work still needs to be done.
McCain said he knew going into the meeting that progress wasn't as far along as it seemed.
"There never was a deal, but I do believe the meeting was important to move the process along," McCain said. "It gave us a renewed sense of urgency, and I'm confident we will move forward, and I'm confident that we will reach a conclusion."
While other Democrats said McCain is part of the problem, Obama would not criticize his opponent directly. He told CNN that he and McCain must be careful not to "start injecting presidential politics into delicate negotiations."
But his spokesman blasted the Republican for an "out of touch response to the economic crisis." Press secretary Bill Burton e-mailed a memo that said McCain has been in full campaign mode despite saying he would suspend his campaign to deal with the crisis. "He just turned a national crisis into an occasion to promote his campaign," Burton wrote.
McCain, for his part, said late Thursday that Congress and the Bush administration are making progress toward an agreement on a rescue of the financial sector.
The Republican presidential nominee said some in Congress have "legitimate concerns" about the big price tag for taxpayers. But he says those critics also are aware of the crisis situation the country faces.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers announced a tentative deal at midday Thursday, while Obama was en route to Washington. Obama told the "CBS Evening News" he was not sure what went wrong.
"Obviously it's pretty frustrating for Democrats having seen the mismanagement that's been taking place over the last several years to feel like we've got to step in and get something done," he told CBS. "But that's how I think many of us feel, that we can't worry about how we got here. Now we've got to take some serious steps."
"It's important not to inject presidential politics into this," Obama said. "My preference is to use the phone ... in a way that's not a photo op because I think that sometimes prevents things from getting done."
An Obama aide says the Illinois senator has been working the phones between campaign events to stay on top of developments with the negotiations and offer his help, speaking daily with Democratic congressional leaders and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
Obama said jobs, economic growth, retirement accounts, small businesses and financial markets will all be at risk without a bailout plan. "There are no good options at this point. There are bad options and worse options. Sounds familiar from our discussions of Iraq," Obama said.
As the financial chaos threatened to consume the presidential campaign, Bush on Wednesday made his first address to the nation in a prime-time television slot this year.
He declared "our entire economy is in danger" and predicted "a long and painful recession" unless Congress took quick action. But his prodding of lawmakers was already appearing incongruous because congressional leaders were saying a deal was close.