WASHINGTON (AP) - Republican John McCain used anecdotes and carefully honed campaign positions, while Democrat Barack Obama responded philosophically to questioning by one of the nation's most influential evangelical pastors as both candidates scrambled for support among America's important conservative Christian voting block.
But although McCain was supposed to be in a "cone of silence" during the debate to ensure he didn't hear the questions ahead of time, he evidently was not. He even made a joke about being in the "cone" before the debate started to moderator Pastor Rick Warren:
WARREN: Welcome back to the "Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency."
And welcome, Senator John McCain.
MCCAIN: Thank you. Good to be here.
WARREN: My first question, was the cone of silence comfortable you were in just now?
MCCAIN: I was trying to hear through the wall.
Bloggers across the nation have all pointed to the fact that McCain seemed to answer questions almost too quickly, jumping ahead of Warren at one point with a comment about the Supreme Court – a question that hadn't yet been asked. McCain's campaign admitted that the candidate was indeed in a motorcade for the first 30 minutes of Obama's appearance. McCain denies "hearing" the questions.
One of the driving issues among evangelical Christians -- their opposition to abortion -- immediately exposed the divisions between McCain, who said a baby's human rights begin "at fertilization," and Obama, who restated his support for legalized abortion, while declaring the need for strong measures to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies.
Both men were greeted warmly Saturday night, but McCain's responses received far and away more applause from the audience that watched as Rev. Rick Warren questioned the candidates separately at his Saddleback Church, a California megacongregation that claims 23,000 members.
The pastor questioned each candidate for an hour. McCain and Obama, who chose to go first after winning a coin toss, briefly shook hands and hugged as the first-term Illinois senator left the stage and his four-term Senate colleague from Arizona arrived.
Religious conservatives have largely supported the Republican Party, and many of McCain's positions are more in line with conservative Christians, who comprise about one-quarter of the U.S. electorate, and who twice helped elected President George W. Bush.
But on Sunday, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican who supports abortion rights and whose name has been floated by McCain as a possible vice presidential running mate for McCain, said he thought the party would accept a so-called pro-choice vice presidential candidate.
But, he said, any running mate should defer to McCain on the issue.
McCain opposes abortion rights, but he riled some conservatives last week when he suggested his running mate could _ like Ridge _ support abortion rights.
"What he was saying to the rest of the world is that we need to accept both points of view," Ridge said on Fox television. "He's not judgmental about me or my belief. He just disagrees with me."
McCain's statement last week about Ridge was seen as an appeal to centrist voters. Ridge tried to soothe conservatives by stating that McCain's view on the issue would prevail in a McCain administration.
At the session with Warren in California, Obama brought up another potential running mate _ former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn _ when asked to name three people he would rely on for counsel as president. Obama listed Nunn after his wife and grandmother.
On the Republican side, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another possible McCain running mate, said "no window's open" to him being the vice presidential nominee. "He's not going to ask," Jindal said. "I don't want to be vice president. I'm not going to be the nominee."
On Saturday night, McCain received rousing applause to an abbreviated version his campaign stump speech for lifting the ban on drilling for oil and gas off the American coast and for his opposition to a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq. The noised reached a crescendo when McCain declared again that he would pursue Osama bin Laden "to the gates of Hell."
That remark could have been taken as a swipe at Bush's administration, which has failed to capture the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.
McCain is at pains to separate himself from Bush, who is highly unpopular after nearly eight years in the White House.
McCain said the nation's greatest moral shortcoming was its failure to "devote ourselves to causes greater than our self-interests." He said his own greatest moral failing was his first marriage – in which he engaged in an affair after his wife had been in a devastating car wreck.
After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, McCain said, there should have been a national push for joining the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations. That comment also appeared to be indirect criticism of Bush, who had urged tax cuts and more shopping to stimulate the economy at the time.
To the same question, Obama responded that the U.S. provides insufficient support to the disadvantaged, reminding that the Bible quotes Jesus as saying "whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me." He said the maxim should apply to victims of poverty, sexism and racism.
When asked about abortion, a key issue for many conservative Christians, McCain expressed his anti-abortion stand simply and quickly, saying human rights begin the instant that a human egg is fertilized. McCain, who adopted a daughter from Bangladesh, also called for making adoption easier as did Obama.
Obama, who supports legalized abortion, said he would limit abortions in the late stages of pregnancy if there are exceptions for the mother's health. He said he knew that people who consider themselves pro-life will find his stance "inadequate."
He said the government should do more to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to help women who give birth, such as provide needed resources to the poor, as well as better adoption services.