Debate in Doubt

First presidential debate slated for 9 p.m. tonight

The first presidential debate between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama remained in doubt Friday, the very day it was to be held, embroiled in the same partisan divisions that were holding up a Wall Street bailout plan.

Obama said he intended to travel to the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where the debate had long been scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. EDT. McCain, who had proposed delaying the contest so the two presidential hopefuls could help negotiate an economic rescue plan, wouldn't commit.

"I'm very hopeful that we'll get enough of an agreement tomorrow so we can make this debate," McCain said Thursday on NBC's "Nightly News."

Obama tried to press McCain into showing up for the first of three scheduled debates between them, saying they should be able to handle the 90-minute forum and the financial crisis at the same time.

"Senator McCain has no need to be fearful about a debate," Obama told reporters. "He's a person of strong opinions and he's been expressing them on the campaign trail."

Both McCain and Obama returned to Washington on Thursday at the urging of President Bush, who invited them to a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House. But a session aimed at showing unity in resolving the financial crisis broke up with conflicts in plain view. McCain would not commit to supporting a plan worked out by congressional negotiators, said people from both parties who were briefed on the exchange.

McCain's campaign said the meeting "devolved into a contentious shouting match" and implied that Obama was at fault — on a day when McCain said he was putting politics aside to focus on the nation's financial problems.

Democrats differed.

The effort stalled late Thursday, with talks set to resume Friday. McCain was returning to Capitol Hill on Friday, his campaign said.

Meanwhile, debate preparations continued in Oxford, with streets blocked off and big TV screens set up on campus and near City Hall for large debate-watching parties.

Television network officials were left with the uncertainty of whether their Friday night programming would be the scheduled debate or something else arranged at the last minute. Pressed in an interview on the "CBS Evening News" about whether he would show, McCain responded: "I understand how important this debate is and I'm very hopeful, but I also have to put the country first."

Obama told NBC that, should the debate go on, he would raise the economy even though the focus was supposed to be foreign policy.

"It's one of the fundamental differences that I have with John McCain, and it's something that I think we need to explore in a debate format," Obama said. "We're only talking about 90 minutes here."

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