Evangelical forum: The winners

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My colleagues in the newsroom know one of my favorite phrases when asked who won an election, a debate or a congressional show-down, know I always say “The American people.” Last night, that was actually true.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain came off well in last night’s forum at Saddleback Church, the megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., run by the Rev. Rick Warren. But it was Warren who will likely get the biggest boost, and who hopefully has shown the journalistic pros, who will moderate the “official” debates later this year, a thing or two.

First, Warren struck an inquisitive tone even as he was asking pretty thoughtful questions about some tough issues. He’d said he didn’t want to let the men waffle out of answers, but he also wasn’t about playing gotcha — he let the two men’s words speak for themselves.

And that was amplified by the forum, in which he spent an hour asking Obama questions, which McCain couldn’t hear, then asked McCain those exact same questions.

That meant we got to stack both men up against each other in a way we’ve never been able to do. Obama was unsure when asked when human life begins, and was stumped when asked if he’d ever voted to reduce abortions (a gutsy question for Mr. Warren to ask). McCain was straightforward: Life, he said, begins “at conception.”

Warren asked each candidate which three people he would turn to for advice. Mr. Obama sputtered a bit, giving the political answer of his wife, then adding in his grandmother before ticking off a few random senators. Mr. McCain gave exactly three names, and had full explanations for each.

Both Obama and McCain probably accomplished what they needed to. Obama was smooth throughout, and had an easy confidence, even as he was telling values voters he doesn’t particularly share their values on top issues.

McCain, meanwhile, was close to spot-on perfect: He handled his divorce from his first wife briefly, but he addressed it head on, leaving the impression he’s done enough soul-searching over that failure to satisfy the harshest critic. And his answers on abortion, tax cuts, the role of faith and religion, and the development of his own personal beliefs were welcomed by the audience.

Stephen Dinan, national political correspondent, The Washington Times

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