Contrasting styles, views in sharp focus

Times Staff Writers

The presidential candidates were on stage together for just a moment, but John McCain and Barack Obama offered an arresting contrast Saturday night both stylistically and on sensitive issues, most sharply on abortion.

In the two-hour forum at Orange County's Saddleback Church, Obama told Pastor Rick Warren that it was "above my pay grade" to define when a baby gets human rights, while McCain quickly answered, "At the moment of conception."

The Republican candidate had the easier task in the back-to-back interviews before about 2,800 members of the evangelical church in Lake Forest. He drew frequent applause with crisp answers intended to reinforce his conservative credentials.

Obama offered more nuanced and analytical answers on some issues important to conservative voters: abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research.

But Obama, a Christian who until recently attended Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, was more revealing about his faith.

Explaining what it meant to him to be a Christian, the Democrat talked of "walking humbly with our God." "I know that I don't walk alone, and I know that if I can get myself out of the way that I can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends," he said.

He used a line from the New Testament to answer Warren's question about what had been America's greatest moral failure. "We still don't abide by that basic precept of Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me," Obama replied.

Asked about his own moral failure, the Illinois senator cited his use of drugs and alcohol as a young man: "When I find myself taking the wrong step, I find that a lot of the time it is because I am trying to protect myself and not do God's work."

McCain, an Episcopalian who attends a Baptist church in Phoenix, has frequently been criticized by evangelical leaders for failing to speak as openly about his faith as Obama and for relying on well-worn stories about how he found God as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He did not diverge from that practice Saturday night.

Asked what it meant to be a Christian, McCain said: "It means I'm saved and forgiven."

He quickly moved on to a story about a prison guard who approached him and secretly drew a cross in the sand. "For a minute there -- there was just two Christians worshiping together. I'll never forget that moment," McCain said.

Without elaboration, he said that his greatest moral failure was his first marriage.

The candidates met briefly between interviews. Obama greeted McCain with a handshake and hug.

They did strike some common themes, such as the importance of rising above self-interest to serve one's country. But they also offered starkly different answers to Warren's question: "At what point does a baby get human rights?"

Obama said: "I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade." He added that he supports the landmark decision Roe vs. Wade but said the issue has "moral and ethical content" and stressed his commitment to reducing the number of abortions.

McCain, however, immediately responded that a baby's rights begin at conception. Perhaps seeking to tamp down alarm among conservatives over his recent comment that he's open to a running mate who favors abortion rights, he continued: "I will be a pro-life president, and this presidency will have pro-life policies."

After sustained applause, Warren quipped: "OK, we don't have to go longer on that one."

Though the candidates came down on opposite sides of the California initiative that would ban gay marriage, both stressed that they opposed same-sex marriage. Obama called marriage "a sacred union," drawing applause when he added, "God is in the mix."

Obama and McCain gave sharply divergent answers on which justices they would not have nominated to the Supreme Court.

Obama named Clarence Thomas, who he said was not a "strong enough jurist or legal thinker," and Antonin Scalia, though he said he didn't doubt "his intellectual brilliance."

McCain ticked off the four liberal members: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.

Aides to both candidates said the forum was a rare chance for them to talk about their faith and to use Warren's network to reach out to evangelicals. The pastor's weekly services draw about 22,000 people. The forum was broadcast live on three cable networks.

This year, both McCain and Obama have faced challenges with religious communities.

Conservative Christian leaders have urged McCain to spend more time talking about his opposition to abortion and his promise to appoint conservative judges. Obama has continued to battle unfounded rumors that he is a Muslim.

Despite suspicion about McCain among Christian conservatives, a recent poll by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. found that 67% of white evangelical voters favor McCain, while 24% support Obama.

The forum also highlighted the stylistic differences between the candidates. Obama's responses tended to be more freewheeling, while McCain frequently recited portions of his stump speech.

Obama offered a long answer to whether evil exists, stating that while "we see evil all the time," individuals will not be able to "erase evil from the world. That is God's task."

But McCain seized the opportunity to mention Osama bin Laden and Islamic extremism, wielding his oft-repeated line about how he'd pursue Bin Laden to the "gates of hell."

The Arizona senator's focus was also evident in Warren's first question about which three people each candidate would rely on most during his administration.

McCain named Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq; John Lewis, the Democratic congressman and civil rights leader; and his economic advisor, Meg Whitman, the ex-CEO of eBay. That allowed him to remind the audience of three campaign themes: his foreign policy credentials, serving a cause greater than one's self-interest and his pledge to use the advice of people like Whitman to turn the economy around.

Obama named his wife and grandmother before moving to a bipartisan list of past and current senators.

When asked to cite a position on which they had changed their views in the last 10 years, Obama mentioned his initial concerns that welfare reform could have "disastrous results." McCain took the opportunity to tout his energy plan -- noting that he had abandoned his opposition to offshore oil drilling. "We've got to drill now. We've got to drill here," he said.

Among the forum's lighter moments was Warren's challenge to "define rich."

Obama poked fun at Warren, whose book "The Purpose-Driven Life" was a bestseller. "Well, if you've got book sales of 25 million, you qualify," Obama joked before saying: "I would argue that if you're making more than $250,000, you're in the top 3% or 4% of the country, and you're doing well."

McCain, whose wife's wealth has been estimated at more than $100 million, tried to dodge the question. But with a chuckle, he finally gave a figure: "I think if you're just talking about income, how about $5 million?"

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.

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