World and Nation

For Rivals, Financial Crisis Poses On-the-Fly Tests

The financial crisis has turned the race between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama into an audition for who could best handle a national economic emergency.

McCain, the Republican nominee for president, called on President Bush on Thursday to dismiss the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Christopher Cox, a former Republican congressman and a Bush appointee.

McCain, who early in the week seemed to struggle to find a consistent message on the economy, also proposed creating a new government body to relieve struggling financial institutions of some bad debt in hopes of keeping them solvent. A similar approach was being considered Thursday night by the Bush administration and congressional leaders.

McCain is expected to lay out a broader view of his approach to the crisis Friday morning in Wisconsin.

His Democratic rival for president, Obama, issued the outlines of his own plan later Thursday while campaigning in New Mexico. His campaign said he would fill in the details after he meets Friday with his economic advisers in Miami, his next campaign stop.

Both men’s actions captured how they were forced to make policy proposals and pronouncements on the fly, from one campaign rally to another, as each day’s developments in the financial markets and in Washington are overtaken by new ones the following day.

With Election Day less than seven weeks away, the financial crisis has transformed the race, wiping away almost all other issues. In a purely political sense, the developments are highlighting economic anxiety and putting the spotlight on a topic that Democrats believe will benefit them. With the chances increasing that Congress could get involved with a plan to help take distressed assets off the books of troubled firms — and potentially put taxpayers on the hook — the politics could become even more intense and complicated, creating further challenges for McCain and Obama as they seek to be seen as in command.

“I cannot remember a modern election in which the presidential candidates were faced with commenting on a problem of this magnitude this close to Election Day,” said Michael Berman, a Democratic Party strategist with experience in presidential politics back to 1964.

The candidates’ challenge parallels that of the Bush administration and federal regulatory officials who in reality are managing the crisis. From Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. on down, there have been contradictory statements, false starts and emergency actions as the crisis spread from one financial institution to another.

But Obama and McCain are on the sidelines and yet expected to act as if they have the best information available. They are getting updates from economic advisers and Wall Street supporters, along with near-daily briefings from Paulson and sometimes Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke PhD ’79. Another complication: The candidates have to balance the political need to look boldly presidential against the danger of further roiling the markets or stoking Americans’ anxiety.