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Behind the scenes on John McCain's wild Friday campaign ride

September 26, 2008 |  1:44 pm

John McCain's campaign is making it up on the fly today, even on the ground.

And in a few hours we'll see in tonight's presidential debate how it all plays out.

The result has been what appears to be barely-controlled chaos on the tag-along end at least. The candidate's seemingly abrupt decision Friday to take part in the debate after 48 hours of public confusion added a nail-biting, cliffhanger element to a presidential contest already infused with high stakes drama.

It is a seat-of-the-pants, adrenalin-charged style that McCain, once an aircraft carrier pilot, apparently enjoys. Or doesn't mind. But it is a far cry from the carefully scripted, well-planned schedules that most presidential campaigns, not to mention the White House, typically employ and the traveling press corps is accustomed to.

It makes an intriguing behind-the-scenes blog item, however.

Two days ago, McCain unexpectedly announced in New York that he would temporarily suspend his campaign, postpone the debate with Obama, and go to Washington to help the White House, Treasury secretary, head of the Federal Reserve, and the 532 members of Congress who aren't running for president find a solution to the unfolding financial debacle.

The result, so far at least, has been more finger-pointing than comity.

Democrats insisted that McCain's presence helped scuttle a.... that was close to agreement, although earlier in the week Democratic Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada suggested the Republican's presence would help.

Republicans angrily blamed Democrats for putting partisan politics over the nation's interest, a default attack line for both parties in Washington.

McCain aides claimed that a highly contentious meeting at the White House on Thursday turned into what one called "Kabuki theater," in which shouting Democratic leaders sought to goad McCain into losing his temper. He did not, they pointed out, instead sitting silently during most of the high-level meeting that he had helped organize.

Whether McCain's involvement helped or hurt the process, it's clear he has utterly upended his campaign at a critical point in a contest already moving at warp speed. Aides complained that they did not know where he would spend the next hour, never mind the next day, and that Obama's campaign cranked up its attacks during the last two days.

"It's like a bad movie," one aide said privately Friday. "No one knows what we're doing. Everything is minute by minute now."

McCain started early Friday with quick meetings on Capitol Hill with Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, and John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House minority leader. He soon returned to his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., his motorcade racing down the rain-slicked streets and across the Potomac River shortly before 11.

By then, aides said, McCain had decided to attend the Mississippi debate.

Soon after, the campaign issued a statement announcing his decision, and another statement to McCain's traveling corps of reporters advising them to be prepared to get to the airport within 45 minutes once the departure time was confirmed.

Instead, McCain pulled another surprise. Climbing into his black SUV, his motorcade suddenly took off for nearby Reagan National Airport.

The flight departed so quickly that dutiful Secret Service agents had to inspect one passenger's bags in the aisle as the plane taxied. Except for the dozen or so reporters and camera crews who shadow him as a pool, the McCain campaign left the rest of the traveling press behind and a separate charter flight was arranged.

In case the rest of working America was worried about them.

-- Bob Drogin