John McCain is a gambler by nature, and the bet he placed Wednesday may be among the biggest of his political life.
The Republican presidential nominee is hoping his abrupt decision to suspend campaigning, seek a delay of Friday's debate with Democrat Barack Obama and return to Washington to prod negotiations over a financial rescue package will be seen as the kind of country-first, bipartisan leadership he believes Americans want.
What he risks, if things don't go as he hopes, is a judgment by voters that his move was a reckless act by an impetuous and struggling politician.
McCain laid out his rationale in stark terms, saying that the economy is in crisis and that he does not believe the package on the table can win enough votes to pass. “Americans across our country lament the fact that partisan divisions in Washington have prevented us from addressing our national challenges,” he said in New York. “Now is our chance to come together to prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country.”
Wednesday afternoon, it was impossible to know what the ultimate verdict would be on McCain's surprise decision.
He managed once again, at least in the short term, to shake up the presidential race at a time when national and state polls show Obama opening up a clear lead. And by day's end, he had forced his rival to blink.
Obama initially resisted McCain's call to join him and return to Washington. But hours later he had to capitulate when President Bush called and asked him to participate in a White House meeting with congressional leaders and his GOP rival. Shortly after that, the two candidates issued a joint call for action.
But while agreeing to go back to Washington, Obama insisted Wednesday night, as he had earlier in the day, that Friday's debate go ahead.
“I believe that we should continue to have the debate,” he told reporters in Florida, where he is preparing for it. “I think that it makes sense for us to present ourselves before the American people, to talk about the nature of the problems that we're having in our financial system, to talk about how it relates to our global standing in the world, what implications it has for our national security, how it relates to critical questions like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Much will depend on whether McCain can deliver results, whether there is a constructive role for him and Obama, or whether they become a sideshow to the real negotiations.
But Obama's course carries risks, as well, if he looks as if he is standing on the sidelines while McCain pushes for intervention that could help avert further damage to the nation's economy.
The standoff over the debate left both candidates in potentially awkward positions, although there is plenty of time for it to be resolved.
McCain may be reluctant to climb down from his insistence that the debate be delayed until there is an agreement on a package, but he could be seen as scuttling an important event for voters eager to see the two candidates side by side. Obama, on the other hand, may look high-handed if he insists on going ahead as negotiations in Washington reach a critical moment by this weekend.