After dramatic detour, John McCain’s task is to get back on track

Republican presidential nominee John McCain returns to the trail today after a dramatic but rocky four-day detour that upended his campaign, upset supporters and gave new ammunition to critics who question his judgment.

McCain will appear at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, in hopes of regaining the momentum he lost when he abruptly canceled campaign events and returned here Thursday to try to broker a $700-billion bailout of the crippled financial industry.

The Arizona senator’s unilateral cease-fire carried a clear cost, aides now concede, acknowledging that polls show Democratic nominee Barack Obama with a widening lead. Pulling most of McCain’s TV ads off the air for several days also left him “naked” to Obama’s broadsides, the aides said.

Some McCain supporters question why he made his own campaign hostage to a highly charged legislative process that he did not control. He does not sit on a Senate committee that is directly involved with the crisis, and he became inextricably linked to a Wall Street bailout that is unpopular with many voters.

Worse, McCain’s campaign assumed an air of barely controlled chaos for four days as frustrated staffers tore up schedules, scrapped speeches and rallies, and scrambled to make contingency plans that seemed to change hour by hour.

“It was all very dramatic, but maybe the American public is tired of drama after the last eight years,” said John Weaver, McCain’s former campaign manager. “John needs to demonstrate he has a steady hand. He needs to be a bit more measured.”

Supporters also criticized McCain’s call last week to cancel the first presidential debate with Obama unless negotiators struck a bailout deal by Friday night. McCain backed down at the last minute and agreed to participate without a deal, but he departed Washington so suddenly Friday afternoon that he left most of his traveling press behind.

After arriving in Mississippi, he decided to return to the capital immediately after the debate. His late-night flight landed at 3:15 a.m. Saturday. Later that day, he made 17 phone calls from his campaign office to White House and congressional leaders, but did not take part in the late-night negotiations that finally hammered out the proposed accord.

McCain also did not head to the Senate floor Saturday to vote on a $634-billion bill to fund the government for the next five months. He had denounced the measure during the debate because it was packed with more than 2,000 “earmarks,” pet projects sought by lawmakers for their home districts and states.

The bill also lifted a long-term congressional ban on offshore oil drilling and included billions of dollars to subsidize loans to the auto industry. McCain strongly supports lifting the drilling ban and providing federal aid to the auto giants.

Appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” McCain said he had been too busy “working on all the other stuff” to cast a vote. Asked if he would have voted against it, McCain said he would have tried to cut the “outrageous pork-barrel spending” in the bill, but “probably would have ended up voting for it.”

Obama, who campaigned Saturday in North Carolina and Virginia, also missed the vote.

McCain also defended his decision to become so personally involved in the bailout debate. “I did the best that I could,” he said. “I came back because I wasn’t going to phone it in. And America’s in a crisis of almost unprecedented proportions. I should be doing whatever little I can to help this process.”

His running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, offered stronger support for his actions. “I’m glad that John McCain’s voice was heard,” she told reporters during a stop at a coffee shop in Philadelphia.

Palin will join McCain for the rally in Ohio. She then heads to McCain’s desert compound in Sedona, Ariz., where she will spend three days preparing for her debate Thursday in St. Louis with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, was uncertain whether McCain would return to vote on the bailout bill. “It’s impossible to know until the vote has been announced,” he said.

Obama, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” argued that he deserved more credit than McCain for the bailout agreement.

Like McCain, he attended an economic summit at the White House on Thursday and spoke by phone regularly over the last two weeks with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and congressional leaders.

Obama said he helped ensure that the accord provides increased oversight, relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, and other provisions to protect taxpayers. “I was pushing very hard and involved in shaping those provisions,” he said.

Later, at a rally in Detroit, the Democrat assailed what he described as McCain’s erratic response to the nation’s financial turmoil, an unsubtle attempt to suggest his competitor may have the wrong temperament to be president.

“That’s why his first response to the greatest financial meltdown in generations was a Katrina-like response,” Obama told the crowd, alluding to Bush administration’s disastrously slow response to 2005 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast.

“He sort of stood there and said, ‘The fundamentals of the economy are strong,’ that’s why he’s been shifting positions this last two weeks looking for photo ops, trying to figure out what to say and what we need to do,” Obama added.

Joe Lieberman, the independent senator from Connecticut who is a close McCain ally, said Obama’s reference to Katrina was “outrageous” and praised McCain’s attempt to bring a bipartisan consensus in Washington.

“I honestly don’t think this would have happened in as timely a way if Sen. McCain had not come back and been the bridge-builder he always has been,” Lieberman said in a conference call to reporters.

McCain aides cast their candidate’s response to the financial crisis as a display of presidential-style leadership at a time of crisis. “Barack Obama was content to phone it in,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain’s top economic advisor, said in the same call.

But in pressing so publicly for a bailout deal and attaching his imprimatur to it, McCain has alienated some of the GOP conservatives who had cheered his selection of Palin to the ticket.

David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, said some of McCain’s responses over the last 10 days were “goofy” and “just don’t make a whole lot of sense.”

“There’s a cooling among conservative Republicans toward him since the convention” early this month, Keene added.

At various times, McCain has called for a study commission, advocated firing the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, proposed a new government agency and refused to back House Republicans who sought to shift more of the bailout cost to banks.

Matt Kibbe, president of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, said he had hoped McCain either would oppose the bailout deal or propose a meaningful alternative.

“His message has been pretty muddled, and the stunt coming back to Washington basically . . . made him just another senator at a table with everyone else,” Kibbe said.

Todd Harris, a former McCain aide, said the GOP candidate “took a hit this week,” but the drama of the moment was likely to pass. “We still have a long way to go, and it’s still a very competitive race,” he said.