Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama initiated the sequence of events that led to Republican candidate John McCain’s stunning announcement this afternoon that he would suspend his campaign and propose delaying Friday’s first debate between the contenders.

While it was Obama who took the lead, McCain pulled a bait and switch stunt in order to try and grab headlines — and the leadership mantle in a race that is all about who can best guide the country — for himself.

The Republican did so by leading the Democrat to believe he was willing to work together behind the scenes with Obama to develop a joint response to the current economic crisis, only to have the Republican leap in front of the cameras with a solo announcement.

Here’s the scenario as it played out during the course of one of the most tumultuous days in the history of American presidential politics:

Early Wednesday, at 8:30 a.m. EST, Obama called McCain to propose that the two candidates attempt to take a leadership role in responding to the economic crisis. Concerned that no consensus was emerging from negotiations between Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and leaders in Congress, Obama suggested that he and his Republican rival outline shared goals for any bailout of troubled banks and financial-services institutions.

Specifically, Obama proposed that the two author a joint statement of “shared principles and conditions” for a bailout.

McCain responded around 2:30 p.m. EST Wednesday to express his willingness to work with Obama.

Then, at 3 p.m. EST, without alerting Obama or the Democrat’s campaign to his intentions, McCain called a press conference to announce that he would stop campaigning in order to return to Washington to focus on the “historic” crisis facing the U.S. economy.

“I am calling on the president to convene a meeting with the leadership from both houses of Congress, including Senator Obama and myself,” McCain announced in New York.

At the same time, McCain urged organizers of Friday’s debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford to postpone the first debate.

In short order, the Bush White House hailed McCain’s move, in an apparent attempt to aide a fellow Republican.

As the afternoon progressed, Obama graciously announced that — despite McCain’s behavior — he was still willing to keep work with the Republican, and that he would go to Washington or anywhere else if it was thought that doing so might help to resolve the crisis.

But the Democrat also suggested that he wanted to debate on Friday.

The Commission on Presidential Debates said it intended to go forward with the scheduled meeting between the candidates at the University of Mississippi.

So where does this leave us?

No matter what happens with the debate, and with the broader discussion about the economy, everyone who is paying attention to the 2008 campaign learned something Wednesday about John McCain.

The man who so frequently denigrates diplomacy apparently has so little respect for the one-on-one relationship that underpin any serious negotiation between powerful figures that he would play political games even in the midst of what he admits is a “historic” crisis.

While McCain was trying to make himself look like a leader today, the Republican contender instead confirmed that he is uniquely unqualified to serve in a position that requires his occupant to win and retain the trust of those with whom he negotiates.