A new question for the debate

After McCain's surprise announcement, nets will 'roll with the punches'

As the campaigns and the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates haggled into the night Wednesday on whether to go ahead with Friday night's first presidential debate, the networks that would carry it were waiting for the smoke to clear.

In a late-breaking, surprise decision that rewrote the scripts of every network newscast, Sen. John McCain said he would stop campaigning and pull his campaign ads to deal with the financial crisis. He canceled a scheduled Wednesday appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" and said he wanted to postpone the Friday debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Sen. Barack Obama, the presidential debate commission and the university all said late Wednesday that the debate would go on as scheduled.

"We must meet as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, and we must meet until this crisis is resolved," McCain said Wednesday. "I am directing my campaign to work with the Obama campaign and the Commission on Presidential Debates to delay Friday night's debate until we have taken action to address this crisis."

Obama was unmoved by his opponent's announcement.

"I believe we should continue to have the debate," he said Wednesday at a news conference in Florida. "I think it makes sense to present ourselves before the American people to talk about the nature of the problems we're having." Obama, responding to a request from President Bush, agreed to come to Washington on Thursday for a meeting on the crisis.

It still wasn't clear late Wednesday whether there would be a debate Friday. McCain said he wouldn't attend unless there was a deal in Congress on the financial crisis. The debates commission said it was moving forward with plans for the debate.

"We believe the public will be well served by having all of the debates go forward as scheduled," the commission said.

The fracas caused logistical and financial concerns for the networks, which already have weathered many ups and downs during this action-packed presidential election.

"We know as much as you do right now," one network executive said about a half-hour after the news broke Wednesday. And it could be another expensive turn for a campaign that already has gone on longer and more been more expensive than many had predicted. The networks a month ago had to absorb nearly $2 million in additional expenses when Obama decided to move his acceptance speech on the last night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver from the Pepsi Center to Invesco Field.

"Every network in America has that (debate) time laid out," Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith said Wednesday. "There are thousands of people en route to Oxford, Miss., at this point. For seven months, they've been working on this there."

Said CNN political director Sam Feist, "If the campaigns and the debate commission want to make the change, we'll roll with the punches."

Another TV executive said Wednesday that postponing the debate would cause some issues for the networks, which were ramping up for coverage Friday. But the networks already were planning to cover it mostly from New York — at least with the big anchors — with several correspondents on the scene in Mississippi.

"I don't know that it's not workable (if the plans are delayed) or a drastic problem," the news exec said. "It's a bigger problem for the host university." The exec said that another date would have to be approved by the university and not affect other scheduled debates.

Friday's face-off was planned as the first of three presidential debates scheduled during the next three weeks. It was slated to be followed by a town hall meeting presidential debate Oct. 7 at Belmont University in Nashville and a final debate Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The vice presidential debate is set for Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis.

"The plans for this forum have been under way for more than a year and a half," the commission said in its statement. "The CPD's mission is to provide a forum in which the American public has an opportunity to hear the leading candidates for the president of the United States debate the critical issues facing the nation."

Even before McCain announcement, Wednesday was already an action-packed day at the broadcast networks, which had to shift their Premiere Week plans to accommodate a 15-minute address to the nation by President Bush on the financial crisis.

As of Wednesday night, ABC, CBS and NBC were still working on contingency plans for Friday if the debate is canceled. Fox, though, said it would air repeats of "Don't Forget the Lyrics."