early and often

Who Won the Showdown at Saddleback?

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On Saturday night, the worlds of Barack Obama and John McCain collided at the Saddleback megachurch in California, where they discussed moral and religious topics with purpose-driven pastor Rick Warren. Besides briefly sharing the stage for a somewhat awkward handshake/half-hug, the two candidates talked individually with Pastor Rick for one-hour blocks. In the interest of fairness, the same questions were asked of both candidates (McCain, going second, was supposed to be in a “cone of silence” for the first hour — he wasn’t, but denies he heard any of the questions anyway), a format which annoyingly precluded most follow-up probing. But Pastor Rick, through his unique questions, was able to summon sides of the candidates we can’t usually see in standard debates, where time is short and the topics are more about policy specifics than character. Both candidates displayed some strengths (intelligence, quickness) and weaknesses (too much intelligence? Too much quickness?), but one man came out on top.

• William Kristol mentions that he “dutifully” stayed in Saturday night to watch the forum before reaching three conclusions: Pastor Rick Warren would be a great debate moderator, McCain won because of his crisp answers and “compelling” anecdotes, and the candidates’ worldviews can be best understood by their answer to the question on whether evil exists. [NYT]

• Michael Gerson claims that Saddleback, “the most important event so far of the 2008 campaign,” demonstrated why Obama has refused to do town halls with McCain: “McCain is obviously better at them.” In contrast to Obama’s “cerebral,” analytical approach, McCain “was decisive, passionate and surprisingly personal.” Republicans should be encouraged by McCain’s performance. [WP]

• Noam Scheiber thinks many of McCain’s “answers sounded pretty stilted and canned, like obviously recycled stump shtick.” Even if McCain was more successful with the audience, it’s because he leads with evangelicals two to one. But many evangelicals probably came out believing Obama is a “reasonable and God-fearing man,” which gives Obama the edge. [Stump/New Republic]

• Kevin Drum notes that Obama treated the event more as an “intimate evening with Rick Warren,” not as a “straight campaign event” like McCain did. Whether that was a smart decision for Obama or not, it doesn’t tell us much about how he’ll do in the debates. [Political Animal/Washington Monthly]

• Chris Cillizza writes that Obama seemed more comfortable in this setting than in the primary debates, as he was allowed time to be “thoughtful and introspective” and “clearly was enjoying himself.” McCain was at ease with the friendly audience, though he “often fell back on standard stump speech rhetoric,” which didn’t seem to concern the crowd. McCain’s “shoot-from-the-hip” style may have gotten him into trouble with the “Who’s rich?” question, when he joked, apparently, that he considered someone making $5 million to be rich (Obama said $250,000). [Fix/WP]

• Marc Ambinder says McCain’s “answers flowed a bit more naturally than” Obama’s. But Obama “did fine,” showing humility and giving an “answer on taxes … as crisp as I’ve heard.” McCain, meanwhile, deftly used his story of the Vietnamese prison guard drawing a cross in the dirt as a “way of talking about what his faith means to him without having to define his theology directly.” (But did he steal it from Solzhenitsyn?) [Atlantic]

• Byron York crowns McCain the “clear winner of the night” because the forum showed that he “has lived a much bigger life than Barack Obama,” though he’s also “lived a much bigger life than most people.” Take the “hardest decision of your life” question: Obama went with his opposition to the war in Iraq, which he didn’t really have to confront because he was a state senator at the time. McCain, meanwhile, recounted a story of refusing an early release from a Vietnamese war prison. The answers made it clear that “John McCain has had to make bigger, more momentous decisions in his life than has Barack Obama.” [National Review]

• Alan Wolfe, though admitting he’s probably biased, concludes that “[i]f you want a president who knows the details of policy on the one hand and thinks the world is complicated on the other, you would vote for” Obama, who was “conversational, intelligent, and responsive.” McCain was “witty, energetic, and quick” — sometimes too quick, perhaps — but left “no doubt about how he views the world.” [Plank/New Republic]

• Chuck Todd and friends “seriously underestimated how Saturday’s religious forum was made to order for McCain, despite the perceptions that McCain rarely talks openly about his faith.” McCain adopted the winning style, addressing the crowd instead of Pastor Rick, and though “Obama may have had more authentic moments … McCain was impressively on message.” [First Read/MSNBC]

• Craig Crawford found the entire event “unseemly” because “[p]residents are not religious leaders and anyone looking to them for spiritual guidance is simply looking in the wrong place.” We should keep a clear distinction between religious leaders and politicians. [CQ Politics]

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.

Who Won the Showdown at Saddleback?