LAKE FOREST, Calif. | Sen. Barack Obama Saturday said that defining when life begins is “above my pay grade,” but added he would work to promote adoptions, as he and Sen. John McCain spilled their souls in what amounted to public confessions to one of the nation’s top evangelical leaders.
Mr. McCain was unequivocal in his answer to the question of when a baby acquires human rights, saying “at the moment of conception,” before going on to tout his pro-life voting record and to promise a pro-life administration and pro-life judges.
The two men shared their first handshake — and hug — of the campaign as Mr. Obama left the stage and Mr. McCain took his seat at a Saturday night faith forum, sponsored by the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church here and an emerging leader for a broader evangelical movement.
Mr. Obama said Justice Clarence Thomas “was not a strong enough jurist or legal thinker” to have been nominated to the Supreme Court, and said to applause he thinks that “marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” but that states should be allowed to make their own definitions.
In a manner reflecting his brusque style, Mr. McCain said without elaboration that his greatest personal failure was the collapse of his first marriage, an event for which he has often taken responsibility. He also repeatedly talked about his Christian faith having been forged by his experiences in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.
He said the greatest failure of the country has been in not stepping up to its challenges, and he even took a swipe at President Bush, saying the country took the wrong attitude after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Mr. Bush famously told people to boost the economy by shopping.
“I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told people to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or the military,” he said.
After “values voters” were credited with delivering a re-election victory to Mr. Bush in 2004, Democrats vowed to fight for those voters, and Mr. Obama senses an opening this year, particularly among younger evangelicals who, their leaders say, are looking beyond abortion and marriage to other issues, such as AIDS, poverty and the environment.
Underscoring the importance of those voters, it took Mr. Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life” and who some have likened to the Rev. Billy Graham, to get the two candidates together on the campaign trail for the first time since they all but secured their respective parties’ nominations.
The fact that this was the first such meeting was a reminder of how the rest of the campaign this year has been fought through television commercials, press releases and speeches, and how most coverage has focused on the two men’s attacks and gaffes. Mr. McCain had challenged Mr. Obama to a series of 10 face-to-face town-hall meetings, but the Democrat rejected that idea.
Still, Mr. Obama said that Saturday’s forum was the kind of discussion the two men should be having and the country needs.
It was more Oprah Winfrey than Lincoln-Douglas, as Mr. Warren prodded both candidates to open up on their own failings and their framework for addressing issues and problems. He had the same script of questions for both men, and so, as a result, Mr. McCain was kept in a soundproof environment while Mr. Obama was on for the first hour in the two-hour program.
Mr. Obama swerved away from revealing too much, saying his biggest political change from 10 years ago was on welfare reform, which he said worked better than he thought.
And questions on abortion, a major stumbling block he faces with evangelicals and other religious conservatives, seemed to stump Mr. Obama: He couldn’t name a time he’d voted to reduce abortions, and couldn’t define at what point a human life has rights, instead saying he is pro-choice, but recognizes that there is a moral and ethical dimension to the issue and respects those who think life begins at conception.
He said he would work to promote common ground.
With Mr. Warren asking the same questions of both men, there were a number of illuminating contrasts.
He asked whether evil exists and how to address it — by ignoring it, negotiating with it, containing it or defeating it — and both men said they believe evil exists. But Mr. Obama said that only God can defeat evil, while Mr. McCain was flat with his answer: “Defeat it.”
Asked their most gut-wrenching decisions, Mr. Obama said his was to oppose the Iraq war. Mr. McCain said his was to forgo early release - for himself alone - from a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, which he was offered by his communist captors but refused because it was against the prisoners’ code of conduct.
Mr. Obama laid out his philosophy for military intervention, saying the U.S. has a role for aggressive action to stop killing worldwide.
“If we have it within our power to prevent mass killings or genocide, and we can work in concert with the international community to prevent it, then we should act,” he said.
Mr. McCain also said the U.S. needs to stop genocide where it can, and said the U.S. can lend logistical support in places like the Darfur region of Sudan, but said U.S. troops should only be committed where national security interests are at stake.
Where Mr. Obama was smooth with his answers, Mr. McCain was specific.
For example, when asked the three people he would listen to as president, Mr. Obama said his mother, his grandmother, and then tossed out several fellow senators. Mr. McCain listed three specific persons: Gen. David H. Petraeus, architect of the surge strategy for Iraq; Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a civil rights leader; and Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay.
Mr. McCain was also able to point to specifics where he’s fought his own party’s interests - “climate change, out-of-control spending, torture, the list goes on” - while Mr. Obama pointed to only one, ethics reforms, which was actually popular with many other Democrats.
Mr. Obama earlier this year caused a stir when he said he would continue, though modify, Mr. Bush’s faith-based initiative. Mr. McCain’s campaign sent out a memo detailing his own support for faith-based initiatives to encourage adoption in the U.S. and efforts to fight malaria in Africa.
The fact that both men were together one after the other was enough to draw full live coverage of the event by the cable news networks.