Arizona Sen. John McCain and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama promise to set presidential politics aside when they meet in New York City today on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Unfortunately, the city’s day of mourning falls at the crescendo of a nasty week of partisan mudslinging, one in which Obama has accused McCain of lying, McCain accused Obama of pushing sex education on kindergartners and no one agrees on who meant what by the phrase “lipstick on a pig.”
The two candidates, who were on their way to work in Chicago and Washington when the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center seven years ago, will meet for the first time as the presidential nominees of their parties as they lay a wreath together at Ground Zero.
This evening, Obama and McCain will meet at Columbia University, where they will speak separately at a nationally televised forum, laying out their personal visions on civic engagement and service.
“All of us came together on 9/11 — not as Democrats or Republicans — but as Americans,” the candidates said in a joint statement. “… On Thursday, we will put aside politics and come together to renew that unity, to honor the memory of each and every American who died, and to grieve with families and friends who lost loved ones.”
Over the last several years, Sept. 11 has become a time-out day in the campaign season, but this is the first time presidential candidates will visit New York to mark it. On this day four years ago, President George W. Bush led a prayer service with 9/11 families at the White House, while Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry spoke in Boston at a memorial event for his state’s victims.
The two campaigns have promised to refrain from running ads today, and spokespeople for 9/11 families this week have welcomed their visit.
Bloomberg said Wednesday that he had asked the candidates not to speak at Ground Zero. “We’re honored to have both the presidential candidates want to come here and together express their remorse… but it can’t degenerate into a spectacle,” he said.
No matter how restrained their conduct, televised images of this visit will cast into sharp relief each candidate’s personal qualities, political experts say.
“There is no such thing as a time-out in a presidential campaign, especially after Labor Day — every minute of every day counts,” said Democratic consultant Dan Gerstein.
“Presidential campaigns… are accumulations of impressions that people build over time,” Gerstein said. And this time, “there are more than the usual number of voters in the middle, who are on the fence.”
Though New York is a Democratic city, war hero McCain may find Ground Zero a congenial setting to remind voters nationwide what he shares with the New York City firefighters who gave the last full measure of devotion in the towers that day. McCain also led the fight to establish the September 11 Commission, which exposed the flaws in U.S. intelligence before the terrorist attacks.
Obama launched his candidacy arguing the war in Iraq was the wrong response to the 9/11 attacks. He has been slipping in the polls this week, and is under pressure to show voters some new dynamism to counter the excitement generated by the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate.
He needs to reassure undecided voters that he is ready to be president, Gerstein said, and can use the televised forum to project strength, toughness and the vision to dismantle al-Qaida and keep the country safe — all without saying anything remotely partisan.
“They will stay very far away from a bright line that would lead anybody to suggest that they were playing politics with Sept. 11,” said Republican strategist Rich Galen.
Uniondale developer Scott Rechler, a finance co-chairman for McCain’s campaign, said he was confident that both candidates have the judgment and character to do the right thing.
“I think it’s terrific. I think it’s fantastic,” said Rechler, who remembers how strangers helped one another in the streets of lower Manhattan that day. “They want to show this is the type of Americans they want to be, and it’s not inconsistent with the kind of leaders we want.”