Did McCain Best Obama At The Faith Forum?


So how did presumptive party nominees Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain fare at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church faith forum? The answer is in the eye — and active political agenda — of the beholder but there seems to be an emerging consensus in the media and in the blogosphere:

Once again, McCain has proven to be far stronger than some predicted he would be, exceeding expectations. And Obama has proven to be a tad less dynamic and overpowering than earlier hype suggested, not meeting some expectations.

The issue at hand is who can leverage the Evangelical vote for victory in November. But the larger, broader issue is becoming which of the two have the political skills to communicate and persuade in the 21st century — and do it on the 21st century’s political terms, and benefit from it.

The emerging unmentionable seems to be whether Obama is a latter-day John F. Kennedy, reflecting Kennedy’s charisma and hope-creating dynamism, or a mix of JFK with a large chunk of the cerebral Adlai Stevenson — a smart guy who never connected as well with the public and didn’t make it to the White House. Obama has proven dynamic in live events and speeches, but less-effective in debate or TV performances. Or, is he more like William Jennings Bryan, the great early orator and Democratic Party nominee in 1896, 1900 and 1908 and who, despite his skills before huge crowds, never won a national election?

Obama’s performance has not been judged bad (except by some GOP partisan writers who likely would have proclaimed it bad no matter how well he did because that’s how the spin game is played). But it was NOT a buzz-creating home run or or game-changer. And McCain — once again — came across as highly-likable, sincere and decisive. Will the word “nuance” — once considered a plus — again become a dirty word in campaign 2008?

NBC Political Director Chuck Todd
, one of the most perceptive observers on the political scene, writes:

Quick first impressions: Obama spent more time trying to impress Warren (or to put another away) not offend Warren while McCain seemingly ignored Warren and decided he was talking to folks watching on TV. The McCain way of handling this forum is usually the winning way. Obama may have had more authentic moments but McCain was impressively on message.

This was a mistake Obama made a few times during the primary season. On one hand, it can make a moderator feel good when their subject actually tries to answer every question and take into account their opinions on a particular topic. And Obama’s supporters will email me tonight and say this is what they love about him.

And yet, this reminded me of the many comparisons we made between Obama and Hillary Clinton. She was much more effective at answering questions in 90 seconds and always staying on message while Obama too easily allowed himself to get knocked off his talking points. Remember, Obama doesn’t need to win over his supporters, he needs folks who are just now tuning in.

Todd said Obama may have made Warren like him a lot more but that if a focus group were surveyed he bets McCain would come out ahead.

Obama better be thankful for the timing of this; he seemed a little rusty and clearly has some work to do before he meets McCain face-to-face on Sept. 26, the night of the first presidential debate in Oxford, MS.

On the other hand, some think Obama could have gained given his long term goals. The New Republic:

The audience, after all, was primarily evangelical Christians–a group among whom McCain leads by better than 2 to 1, according to recent polls. That means that if McCain did any worse than twice as well as Obama, it counts as a win for Obama. And, from where I sit, McCain didn’t come close to doing twice as well. My sense is that Obama struck a lot of previously skeptical evangelicals as a reasonable and God-fearing man (a real achievement given that so many of the questions touched on issues that favor Republicans among these voters–abortion, judges, stem cell research, etc.). That’s a big improvement in light of where Obama started.

Advantage Obama.

Some news accounts of the event can be found here and here.


New York Times:

Mr. McCain received the more rousing response from the audience, made up largely of church members here in Orange County, one of the most conservative areas in the country. He told more anecdotes but also filibustered more. One of the few points when Mr. McCain left the audience silent was when he said he favored stem-cell research.

Mr. Obama skirted a question about when life begins, saying that determining such a thing was above his pay grade and sending murmurs throughout the audience. Mr. McCain said simply, “At the moment of conception.”

Asked to define marriage, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain gave the same answer: that it is the union between a man and a woman.

But Mr. Obama also said he opposed a constitutional amendment defining marriage that narrowly and said he supported same-sex civil unions. “For gay partners to visit each other in the hospital, I don’t think limits my core beliefs about what marriage is,” he said.

Washington Post:

In his answers, Obama described many of his positions, even on taxes and energy, in the language of a devout Christian. When asked about his “greatest moral failing,” he discussed his teenage drug and alcohol use, attributing it to “a certain selfishness on my part. I was so obsessed with me, and the reasons why I might be dissatisfied, that I couldn’t focus on other people.”

Confronted with the same question later, McCain cited the failure of his first marriage and went on to say the greatest moral failure of the nation had come in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In a thinly veiled criticism of President Bush’s rhetoric after the attacks, the presumptive Republican nominee said he was troubled that Americans had been asked to go shopping to stimulate the economy rather than being called on to “devote ourselves to causes greater than our self-interests.”

…McCain and his campaign advisers have been eager to put their struggles with Christian conservatives behind them. Some conservatives remain angry over his role in a 2005 compromise that allowed Democrats to block some conservative judges Bush was attempting to appoint; others still recall his criticisms of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” during the 2000 Republican primaries.

…For Obama, the Saddleback event allowed him to reinforce that he is a Christian before an audience that doubtless included many familiar with Internet and talk-radio-driven rumors that he is a Muslim. That particular falsehood has proven maddeningly difficult to dispel for Obama’s campaign, continuing to dog his candidacy even after the high-profile controversy stirred up by Obama’s former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

San Francisco Chronicle:

McCain, who has town hall forums from New Hampshire to California, appeared to treat the forum more as a campaign event, often reprising his well-worn jokes and stump speech segments. But he used humor often to the delight of the audience, and connected well with the crowd when he told several stories that underscored his own celebrated history as a POW.

But Obama also showed strengths: He appeared more thoughtful and comfortable discussing faith and domestic issues, exploring with relish the issues and moral dilemmas with Warren.

The Guardian:

Where Obama was thoughtful and cautious, McCain was abrupt – so abrupt in fact that his short responses meant he got to answer more questions in his hour than his rival.

Obama went first, assured by Warren that his rival would not overhear the questions. While Obama tended to engage with the questions in a sometimes cerebral way, McCain exhibited a tendency to lapse into his campaign stump speech. At one point he showed up Warren’s deficiencies as an interviewer to “take 30 seconds” to preach his foreign policy doctrine of catching Osama bin Laden.

….For the flock outside the church leaving the event, such exchanges were manna from heaven. “John McCain did a very good job, very straight-forward,” said Jill Frick, who has attended the church for eight years. “I think Barack Obama is very likeable and emotional, but he skirted the issues. The evening definitely cemented my views.”

Ken Mills agreed: “Barack Obama was just like a regular politician, he didn’t answer the questions. I think John McCain blew him out of the ballpark.”

The BBC’s article is titled “Rivals Shine At Church Forum” and includes this:

Their answers revealed much.

Barack Obama, when asked “what does it mean to you to believe in Christ?” talked at length about his Christian faith, while John McCain simply answered: “I’m saved and forgiven.”

Mr McCain then went on to tell an often heard story about his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, when a guard loosened his ties and on Christmas Day drew a cross in the dirt, allowing them both to pray.

In fact, Mr McCain spent a lot of time telling stories of Vietnam. It was, understandably, a pivotal time in his life and one that he draws much inspiration from. The audience appreciated it.

By contrast, it was Barack Obama who made much of his Christian beliefs and how they would underpin his presidency. And the audience appreciated this too.

Yet Mr Obama had the harder time. America’s conservative Christians traditionally vote Republican and – even though they are less enthusiastic about John McCain than, say, George Bush – the majority still look likely to support him come November.

Mr McCain was, as it were, preaching to the converted, and drew many more cheers, quite a few laughs and louder applause.

However, this huge voting group (one estimate suggests 1 in 4 American adults call themselves born-again Christians) is fragmented as never before.


Andrew Sullivan:

McCain’s evolution into a candidate who knows how to stroke the Christianist base is somewhat impressive. It was a little canned at times, but it will work with evangelicals. All in all, this struck me as pretty much a draw.

Marc Ambinder:

Who says John McCain fares poorly in these types of sessions? At Rick Warren’s forum, he seemed more comfortable and his answers flowed a bit more naturally than Barack Obama’s. Granted, the audience was probably more favorably inclined to him. Obama did fine. Penty of humility. And his answer on taxes was as crisp as I’ve heard.

–The Daily Kos’ Kirstina40 believes McCain fell into a trap:

The Obama campaign knew what they were getting into by entering into that forum. They were targeting the Moderate Christians and Independents, McCain simply pandered to his “base” and gained NO votes for his performance. He tethered himself firmly to Bush and his policies and you can be sure, Obama will be more than happy to use McCain’s answers from tonight in future ads to make sure nobody misses it.

Remember McCain pronouncing “America” as “Amuurica”? How many times do you figure we’ll be hearing that in an ad soon? How about his abortion answers? How many women will run screaming away from McCain now? Any moderate’s watching his performance tonight are appalled by his obvious love of war and all that has to do with it. Obama gained votes tonight from groups other than the Evangelicals it was slanted towards.

–Pajamas Media’s Roger’s Rules felt the two candidates’ answers on an abortion related question illustrated their character…to Obama’s detriment.


McSame mostly did okay until he started rambling about Russia, and then he was totally incoherent. That’s big, because that issue is supposedly why he’s “won the week” — and Obama didn’t even get that question. If there was a lost opportunity for him, that was it. He didn’t offer any meaningful response to Russia and just lamely talked about humanitarian aid. He blew it.

Most annoying to me, McSame refused to define what rich is and what middle class is. Warren asked this for a reason, and McSame weaseled it. Obama, who gave a very direct answer, looked like the straight-talker.

Obama wins the night, by a big margin.


That Obama is just so darn thoughtful. This isn’t just CNN’s judgment. Over at MSNBC, political director Chuck Todd noted that “every Obama answer was certainly thoughtful enough. . . ” San Francisco Chronicle political writer Carla Maninucci writes that Obama “appeared more thoughtful and comfortable discussing faith and domestic issues, exploring with relish the issues and moral dilemmas with Warren.” Dan Glaister, Los Angeles correspondent of the UK Guardian, reports: “Where Obama was thoughtful and cautious, McCain was abrupt – so abrupt in fact that his short responses meant he got to answer more questions in his hour than his rival.”

I watched the forum and would describe many of Obama’s responses as vague. Thoughtfulness, like beauty, apparently is in the eye of the beholder. At CNN and in other mainstream media outlets, they all behold it the same way.

Ann Althouse did live blogging. At the end she adds this:

IN THE COMMENTS: Lots of folks think McCain won clearly. A telling comment from XWL: “McCain has the advantage of just being able to say what he thinks.”

ABC’s Political Punch:

But where Obama had more trouble with the crowd – which sat politely throughout the forum – was when Warren delved into the social issues that put Obama and his liberal views at odds with the majority of white evangelicals.

Betsy Newmark:

Obama seems to take a more cerebral response talking about questions theoretically while McCain answers more directly and, with some of these questions, seemed to display more knowledge and familiarity with the issue. They both seemed comfortable and I think they both came off well.

I’m guessing that, for Evangelical Christians, McCain did himself some good tonight. The storyline before this appearance was that Obama was making a lot of inroads with those voters. McCain hit the sweet notes for Evangelicals on issues like abortion and adoption.

In my opinion,seeing them together like this actually did McCain some good.