Faced with an economic crisis of historic proportions, on Sept. 24, Mr. McCain and opponent Barack Obama issued a joint statement calling for unity in the face of trouble. "The American people are facing a moment of economic crisis. ... This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe. Now is our chance to come together to prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country."
But prior to the statement's official release, Mr. McCain announced he'd be suspending his campaign and heading back to Washington. He said he wouldn't engage in politics -- including Sept. 26's debate -- until a bailout deal was worked out.
So much for unity.
At a press event that afternoon, Mr. Obama laid out the debate theme for the rest of the week. "It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."
To reinforce that point, the Obama team the next day sent out a list of previous crises that happened on or around the date of presidential debates, including headlines from the New York Times' Oct. 13, 1960, edition, which included: "Bomb injures 33 in Times Square in 3rd explosion in 11 days" and "U.S. embargo on Cuba announced."
According to Michael Feldman, partner at the Glover Park Group in Washington, McCain is "reacting to the fact that most people favor Obama on the economy, so he has to show that he's engaged. ... But the decision to pull out of the debate ... conveyed a certain level of desperation." (Mr. Feldman has worked for Al Gore in the past but is not involved with either campaign.)
The bigger damage may not come from the image hits Mr. McCain has taken in the media, though. It may come from ceding the media battlefield to Mr. Obama as Election Day draws nearer.
Evan Tracey, president of TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group, wrote on AdAge.com's Campaign Trail blog: "With Barack Obama outspending McCain nearly 2 to 1 on a daily basis, now is not the best time for McCain to reduce his advertising."
The McCain team had a different take on things, portraying the drama in D.C. as driven by the Democrats. The McCain campaign said in a statement released Sept. 26: "Barack Obama's priority was political posturing in his opening monologue defending the package as it stands. John McCain listened to all sides so he could help focus the debate on finding a bipartisan resolution that is in the interest of taxpayers and homeowners."
In that statement, Mr. McCain announced he'd resume campaigning.
This particular gamble didn't seem to pay off for the Maverick. Said Vinny Minchillo, chief creative officer of Scott Howell & Co. in Dallas: "McCain rolled the dice on suspending his campaign and came up craps. The play simply hasn't worked. The party faithful seemed to like the move, but undecideds were clearly unmoved. McCain's numbers are trending wrong and, at this point, the debate is his best shot at turning things around."
And by the time you read this, the drama leading up to the debate may have been overshadowed by the performances at the debate.