Lake Forest, Orange County—When President Bill Clinton played his saxophone on the late-night “Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992, it was obvious that presidential campaigns had changed. That evolution continued Saturday night when presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain made their first joint appearance of the 2008 campaign. This time, it was not in a televised debate moderated by reporters in a university auditorium, but at an evangelical church conducted over a cup of coffee with its pastor.
“The Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency,” moderated by mega-church pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren, turned out to be more interesting and politically important than one might have expected, as the presumptive nominees discussed heartland issues of leadership, worldview, domestic policy and America’s place in the world. Going in, the significance of the event seemed to be its church setting and audience of 2,200 church members, and the increasingly important evangelical Christian voter. From what I saw there, it was that—and more.
The two-hour forum was really the opening, the tone-setting lap of an Olympic presidential race, as the candidates contrasted sharply in both style and substance. Democrat Obama spoke for the first hour, with Republican McCain off-stage, unable to hear the questions that would be posed to him later. As expected, Obama was a great conversationalist, offering thoughtful answers to tough questions. Highly personal and seemingly impossible questions—what three people would you listen to as president, what is your greatest moral failure, what does faith in Christ mean to you—seemed like small hurdles for his nimble mind.
After a bit of a shaky start, McCain hit his stride with remarkably direct and energetic answers to the tough questions. Obama’s nuanced responses, in which he processed multiple sides of complex issues, contrasted with McCain's direct replies. When asked when a child’s human rights begin, McCain said straightforwardly, “at conception,” whereas Obama equivocated. On same-sex marriage or merit pay for teachers, again McCain stepped into the pitch with a solid hit, whereas Obama’s responses seemed more circular. As one pleasantly surprised evangelical leader said, “McCain is back on the straight talk express.”
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