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Mid-afternoon Mccain Debate Gambit Thoughts

Is McCain going to debate tomorrow night? My initial reaction to McCain's announcement was that he's looking for a way to shake-up the debate schedule. Subsequent events seem to strengthen that assumption. Last night, the McCain campaign floated the idea of rescheduling the debate for next Thursday night, when the veep debate is scheduled (this on the heels of Sarah Palin's frightening interview with Katie Couric.) Today, it's become clear that McCain's "suspension" of his campaign means very little except a refusal to debate.

Then you had the bailout politics. This morning, McCain breathlessly warned that the deal was on death's doorstep: “I cannot carry on a campaign as though this dangerous situation had not occurred," he warned, "or as though a solution were at hand, which it clearly is not." Almost immediately after, bipartisan leaders in Congress announced that the principles of a deal were in place. (Republican Senator Robert Bennett: "“I now expect that we will indeed have a plan that can pass the House, pass the Senate, be signed by the president.” Democratic Senator Chris Dodd: “We are very confident that we can act expeditiously.”) Then, perhaps fearing that the ridiculousness of McCain's position had been exposed, House GOP Leader John Boehner declared that a deal was not yet in hand.

If McCain was really worried about missing the debate, he'd have seized on the earlier announcement to the bill on the way to passage and announced his participation in the debate. He didn't. Conclusion: I don't think there's much reason to believe he really wants to debate Friday night.

What will happen? I think the next stage is a game of chicken with the networks. If the networks convincingly say that they plan to air a "debate" between Obama and an empty chair moderated by Jim Lehrer, then McCain will be on the first plane to Mississippi. But McCain will exert intense pressure on the networks not to do that. Every Republican politician and media organ will reverberate with charges of media bias, and most likely the networks will fold, and air re-runs instead. (Cable news stations might air the "debate," but that would command a tiny fraction of normal debate viewership.) So then Obama will be forced to reschedule the debate, which may well be what McCain was after all along.

The alternative possibility is that Republicans are just holding up the deal, waiting for McCain's intervention to be the heroic leap rescuing the bailout from the brink of disaster. It may happen. But does McCain really want to jump back into the debate after apparently having spent so little time prepping for it?

--Jonathan Chait