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McCain and Obama court religious voters at forum

Back on the campaign trail after a summer break, the candidates take tough questions.

By Steven Thomma
McClatchy Newspapers

LAKE FOREST, Calif. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama courted religious voters Saturday, returning full time to the trail after a summer break by making their first joint appearance of the campaign at a forum on faith in a Southern California mega-church.

The two men, both Christians, appeared back to back at a two-hour forum organized by Rick Warren, one of the nation's most prominent evangelists and author of the best-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life.” They shook hands briefly and embraced quickly as Obama finished his hour of questioning and McCain took the stage for his.

Sitting at a table with Warren, each man spoke in often personal terms about their faith in Christ, confessed their greatest moral failings, and tried to explain – or not explain – their thinking about such hot-button issues as abortion and marriage.

For Obama, the forum signaled a return to the campaign after a vacation in Hawaii and the start of a weeklong run-up to the Democratic National Convention certain to include the announcement of his running mate.

For McCain, it also marked a ramping up after a low-key week.

For both, it was an opportunity to talk about their faith and the role it plays in public policy, a key pitch to religious voters who could be vital in a close election. They met as religious voters' loyalty to Republicans that hit a peak in 2004 may be waning, and Democrats may be making some inroads.

Among the points they made:

Their greatest moral failure.

“The failure of my first marriage,” said McCain. “It's my greatest moral failure.”

Obama said he experimented with drugs and drank during a “difficult” youth when his father had left and he himself was overly selfish. “I couldn't focus on other people,” he said.

Most gut-wrenching decision.

McCain said it was when he refused early release from a North Vietnamese prison camp because it would have put him ahead of fellow American prisoners in violation of their code of conduct. “It took a lot of prayer,” he said.

Obama said it was opposing the war in Iraq at a time it was politically risky and he believed that Saddam Hussein did mean to harm the United States. However, he said he did not believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

The three wisest people they would consult as president.

McCain listed Gen. David Petreaus, the architect of the surge strategy in Iraq; Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement; and Meg Whitman, the CEO of Ebay, who created more than a million jobs.

Obama named two, his wife and grandmother. He also said he would consult bipartisan sources such as former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar.

Supreme Court justices they would not have nominated.

McCain named Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens.

Obama said he would not have appointed Clarence Thomas because he wasn't smart enough or Antonin Scalia because he disagreed with him.

On when a child secures human rights.

“At the moment of conception,” McCain said. “I have a 25-year pro-life record. …I will be a pro-life president.”

“Answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade,” Obama said.

He said he supports limits on late-term abortions if there is an exception for the health of the mother. But ultimately, he said, he supports abortion rights: “I am pro-choice.”

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