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McCain, Obama Drawn Out On Abortion, Marriage

ROBERT SMITH, host:

In Southern California, a rare sight last night: Barack Obama and John McCain briefly together on the same stage. They were interviewed by Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church in Orange County, and the questions he asked were more personal than political. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: Barack Obama won a coin toss and chose to go first. He's been working hard to reach out to evangelicals, a group that voted overwhelmingly for President Bush. So he eagerly submitted to Rick Warren's questions, some of which were the kind that most people wouldn't want to answer at all, much less in public.

Pastor RICK WARREN (Founder and Leader, Saddleback Valley Community Church): What would be the greatest moral failure in your life, and what would be the greatest moral failure of America?

JAFFE: On his personal failures, Obama talked about his troubled youth and his experimentation with drugs and alcohol. And then he showed that he knew how to play to the house.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Presidential Presumptive Nominee, Illinois): I think the process for me of growing up was to recognize that it's not about me. It's about...

Pastor WARREN: I like that.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

JAFFE: Of course, Warren said he liked it. It echoed the first line of his book, "The Purpose Driven Life," which is, "It's not about you." And when Obama discussed America's moral failings, he did it by quoting Scripture.

Senator OBAMA: We still don't abide by that basic precept in Matthew, that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me. That notion of...

(Soundbite of audience applause)

JAFFE: There was only so far Obama could go, however, in convincing the Saddleback congregation that his public policies were biblically based. On the subject of abortion, for example...

Senator OBAMA: I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe versus Wade. And I come to that conclusion not because I'm pro-abortion but because ultimately, I don't think women make these decisions casually.

JAFFE: That wasn't the right answer for most in this audience. But if there's an evangelical church where Obama could get a good reception, Saddleback would be it. Rick Warren has been in the forefront of urging evangelical Christians to expand their agenda from abortion and gay marriage to include poverty, climate change and HIV/AIDS, and Obama got a lot of applause. But when Warren put the litmus test question to his opponent, McCain got cheers.

Pastor WARREN: What point is a baby entitled to human rights?

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican Presidential Presumptive Nominee, Arizona): At the moment of conception.

(Soundbite of audience applause)

JAFFE: Answers like this could reassure evangelicals, some of whom have doubted McCain's commitment to their issues. He was asked the exact same questions as Obama, though McCain got some extra ones because some of his answers, like this one, were so short.

Pastor WARREN: Define marriage.

Senator MCCAIN: A union between man and woman, between one man and one woman. That's my definition of marriage.

JAFFE: McCain's answers were more overtly political than Obama's. When Obama was asked to name the wisest people he knew, he included his wife and his grandmother. None of McCain's choices were personal. One of them was General David Petraeus, and that gave McCain the opportunity to promote his commitment to the war in Iraq by lauding the general who, quote, "took us from defeat to victory there." McCain's answers were blunt and efficient and just what Saddleback member Jeff Avis(ph) was looking for.

Mr. JEFF AVIS (Saddleback Member): He didn't even have to think of a lot of the answers to his questions. They were to the point and well-formed.

JAFFE: Avis was leaning toward McCain before the forum. Donna Thomonson(ph) was leaning toward Obama, and what she heard him say on the stage of her church just reminded her why she liked him.

Ms. DONNA THOMONSON (Saddleback Member): The support for the everyday person and the compassion for people who are struggling, and that just continues to resonate with me.

JAFFE: Just about everyone we spoke with agreed on one thing: that they got to know the candidates in ways that they felt aren't possible in the usual televised debates. That's left Mike Briga(ph) in a quandary.

Mr. MIKE BRIGA (Saddleback Member): The two candidates, I felt, were as different as they could be, but I think either of them will make fantastic presidents. Obama, I felt, showed compassion, and McCain showed decisiveness.

JAFFE: And, said Briga, we need both in our next president. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Lake Forest, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."

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