John McCain’s announcement that he would suspend his presidential campaign to focus on the economic crisis threw the political world for a loop — and raised fears that it would leave networks and perhaps TV stations in the lurch.

The decision set off a day of political staredowns. His proposal to postpone the debate was rejected by Barack Obama, and some Democrats characterized it as a gimmick as McCain’s poll numbers have slipped.

The Commission on Presidential Debates said that the Friday debate would go forward as planned, but McCain appears to be tying his presence to whether Congress can agree on a bailout proposal for the nation’s economy.

So networks are fretting over the possibility that they’ll lose out on an opportunity to draw huge numbers of viewers if at least one debate is scrapped. The opening Bush-Kerry debate in 2004 drew more than 60 million viewers, and the tremendous audiences for forums so far has fueled speculation that the first McCain-Obama matchup could be an even bigger draw.

CNN reported that, should no bailout deal be reached by Friday, the McCain campaign has proposed that the first presidential debate be held on Oct. 2, when Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin were to face off in St. Louis. That debate would in turn be rescheduled to an unspecified date. Still in question is whether that would in turn bump two other scheduled presidential forums on Oct. 7 in Nashville and Oct. 15 in Hempstead, N.Y.

McCain also will be pulling ads at a peak time. What is unclear is whether the campaign will still be on the hook to pay for the spots, and just how much he would save by not being on the air in key battleground states for the next few days. Obama could limit his ground game in response. But unlike Obama’s, McCain’s campaign has taken public financing, meaning its general election spending is capped at $84 million. In other words, every dollar matters.

At the last minute, McCain did cancel an appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” and the latenight host didn’t miss an opportunity to deliver a few cracks about the decision to suspend. Letterman said, “I think someone’s putting something in his Metamucil.”