Crisis an audition for candidates

President Bush and the two men running to succeed him raised the political stakes dramatically Wednesday in the great bailout debate of 2008, effectively stamping a “too big to fail” sign on congressional efforts to pass a pre-election economic rescue plan.

With the outcome all but assured, details and a timetable for passage of an unprecedented federal intervention in the capital markets remain to be settled. And both John McCain and Barack Obama will be able to claim credit for winning changes in the administration's original plan — some of which the White House has already accepted.

“The whole world is watching to see if we can act quickly,” President Bush said early in the week, before his proposal ran into criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.

So, too, the American electorate, six weeks before choosing between two presidential candidates, now staging side-by-side auditions for the job of national crisis-manager-in-chief.

While Bush was exercising his presidential powers, would-be successors McCain, the Republican, and Obama, the Democrat, were trying out for his job.

“All we must do to achieve this is temporarily set politics aside, and I'm committed to doing so,” McCain said in New York.

It was an echo of the acceptance speech he delivered in St. Paul, Minn., less than a month ago: “After we've won, we're going to reach out our hand to any willing patriot, make this government start working for you again,” he said then.

But there was more to it.

McCain's statement marked the second time in a matter of weeks that he used a dramatic gesture to shake up the race for the White House.

The first was his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as vice presidential running mate, a pick that energized conservatives and helped fuel a post-convention surge in public support.

But the gains in public opinion surveys have now dissipated, and most polls show Obama with the same relatively modest lead he held before the summer. One, the Washington Post-ABC survey, gave the Democrat a nine-point advantage, with a commanding lead among voters who said the economy was the top issue.

While McCain has insisted Palin is ready to take over as president, he made no mention of including her in the crisis meetings he wants in Washington. One aide said he did not intend for her to be present.

Obama was next to step before the cameras, telling reporters that he had initially called McCain to suggest a joint statement that would make clear both presidential hopefuls supported legislation to stem the economic slide.

Where McCain talked about bipartisanship, Obama provided specifics across party lines.

“I also need to give credit to Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who had called me suggesting that a joint statement might be useful,” he said.

He also said he had urged Democratic congressional leaders not to pursue efforts to add an economic stimulus package to the bailout. Similarly, he said the attempt to give bankruptcy judges the power to rewrite mortgage terms, another Democratic priority, “is probably something that we shouldn't try to do in this piece of legislation.”