LAKE FOREST, California,August 17 – US presidential election rivals Barack Obama and John McCain met on the campaign trail for the first time here at a mega-church forum to examine their religious credentials.
Democratic candidate Obama and Republican hopeful McCain shook hands and hugged briefly at the mid-point of the two-hour discussion late Saturday, which was moderated by prominent evangelical Rick Warren, pastor at the huge Saddleback Church.
Warren quizzed each of the candidates separately for an hour on election issues, with both Obama and McCain earning regular applause from a crowd of around 2,000 people at the church’s auditorium.
Though presented as a forum on faith, the question and answer sessions were dominated by the familiar campaign issues of the Iraq war, national security energy and finance policy.
Asked by Warren to reveal the biggest moral failures of America and his life, Obama said he had been guilty of "fundamental selfishness" at times, also mentioning his experimental use of drugs in the past.
"I had a difficult youth," Obama said. "There were times when I experimented with drugs.
"Americans’ greatest moral failure in my lifetime has been that 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," Obama said.
McCain later cited his unsuccessful first marriage as his biggest moral failure. "My greatest moral failing, and I have been a very imperfect person, is the failure of my first marriage," McCain said.
"America’s greatest moral failure has been throughout our existence, perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self interest."
Both candidates were quizzed for their views on same-sex marriage and abortion, Obama sidestepping when asked directly to give his view on when a baby began to enjoy human rights.
"I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade," Obama said.
McCain, who is opposed to abortion, replied bluntly to the same question. "From the moment of conception," McCain said. "I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies."
Commenting of the Georgia conflict, the Republican candidate urged Russia to respect the territorial integrity of the former Soviet republic. He also promised to promote religious freedom everywhere, arguing that Americans must "do what we can to help the oppressed throughout the world."
Blanket security surrounded the Saddleback Church on Saturday. Dozens of placard-waving anti-abortion and anti-Iraq war protesters could be seen gathering outside the facility.
The forum underscored the prominent role of religion in US politics, and both McCain and Obama are seeking to secure support from faith-based groups.
The forum marked a crucial period in the presidential race, with both candidates expected to soon name their vice presidential running mates, ahead of their party conventions, the Democrats on August 25-28 in Denver, Colorado, and the Republicans on September 1-4 in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Obama and McCain’s campaigns meanwhile have been building up their war chests for the 10 weeks before the November 4 election.
McCain set the stage Friday for an advertising blitz against Obama by raking in a monthly fundraising record of 27 million dollars in July, aides said.
His total was however dwarfed by Obama’s monthly fundraising figure, which was released Saturday and showed 51 million dollars piled up in July.
Obama is also celebrating after recruiting the two millionth donor to his campaign, evidence of an unprecedented grass roots movement that his team hopes will help carry him to victory in November.