WASHINGTON -- Usually reporters are not allowed to linger under the canopy covering the entrance to the West Wing of the White House, but it was raining Wednesday afternoon, and someone in charge allowed the crowd of McCain and Obama reporters to keep dry as they waited for the senators, one who will be the next president of the United States and have to handle this horrible economic mess we are in.
The mixer was happening a day early; the squads who cover Barack Obama and John McCain were supposed to be crossing paths for the first time today in Oxford, Miss., for the initial presidential debate.
Instead, at McCain's instigation, President Bush and Obama, McCain and congressional leaders were in the Cabinet Room, where a deal for a desperately needed economic rescue that seemed in the works early in the day fell apart.
It's a curious way, so far, for McCain to be demonstrating his leadership ability. He said he suspended his campaign as of Thursday morning to work out a bipartisan package. McCain said the debate should be postponed until Congress agrees to a plan.
There's lots of blame for why the bailout legislation is not sprinting through the House and Senate chambers.
The Democrats -- especially in the House -- don't want to pass a bailout plan without a lot of Republican votes because of the mind-blowing cost, the worry that it may not work and voters will retaliate against congressional Democrats in November.
House GOP conservatives don't want to be pressured into quick action because they hate this kind of drastic government intervention, even if it's necessary. McCain needs to deliver these guys.
Obama faulted McCain for the unraveling, saying later at a hastily called press conference, "What I've found, and I think it was confirmed today, is that when you inject presidential politics into delicate negotiations, it's not necessarily as helpful as it needs to be.
"Just because there is a lot of glare of the spotlight, there's the potential for posturing or suspicions and, you know, I think that the way that I've been working over the last week, constantly in contact with the secretary and congressional leaders, you know, may end up creating an environment in which you can actually get something done."
McCain, the swashbuckler, said Wednesday he was suspending his campaign as Congress grappled with Bush's $700 billion bailout package, and wanted the debate delayed. While McCain took down most of his paid TV advertising, his spokesmen were on shows, McCain's campaign traveling press pool followed him around, and he sat for interviews.
Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, by the end of the day sent out a memo gleefully
titled "suspending disbelief, not the McCain campaign."
If there is a debate -- national security and international affairs are supposed to be the focus of the first of three --the rival teams have been told global economic questions are now on the agenda.
Each side is lowering expectations. "I think Obama is a very good debater, very agile, very quick on his feet," McCain's top adviser Mark Salter told me earlier this week. "So it's not going to be a day in the beach."
Robert Gibbs, an Obama strategist, portrayed Obama as shaky. "He tends to get a question, describe the problem, tell a story, give some solutions, and you know, you pray to God that that isn't 45 seconds longer than you've been allotted to speak."
As I write this, it's not clear if McCain will show up in Mississippi. He's keeping everyone guessing.