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McCain, Obama woo conservatives

Both candidates scrambled for support among America's important conservative Christian voting block.

world Updated: Aug 17, 2008 19:57 IST

Republican John McCain used anecdotes and carefully honed campaign positions, while Democrat Barack Obama responded philosophically to questioning by one of the nation's most influential evangelical pastors as both candidates scrambled for support among America's important conservative Christian voting block.

One of the driving issues among evangelical Christians _ their opposition to abortion _ immediately exposed the divisions between McCain, who said a baby's human rights begin "at conception," and Obama, who restated his support for legalized abortion, while declaring the need for strong measures to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies.

Both men were greeted warmly, but McCain's responses received far and away more applause from the audience that watched as Rev. Rick Warren questioned the candidates separately at his Saddleback Church, a California megacongregation that claims 23,000 members. The pastor questioned each candidate for an hour. McCain and Obama, who chose to go first after winning a coin toss, briefly shook hands and hugged as the first-term Illinois senator left the stage and his four-term Senate colleague from Arizona arrived. Religious conservatives have largely supported the Republican Party, and many of McCain's positions are more in line with conservative Christians, who comprise about one-quarter of the U.S. electorate, and who twice helped elected President George W. Bush. McCain received rousing applause to an abbreviated version his campaign stump speech for lifting the ban on drilling for oil and gas off the American coast and for his opposition to a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq. The noised reached a crescendo when McCain declared again that he would pursue Osama bin Laden "to the gates of Hell."

That remark could have been taken as a swipe at Bush's administration, which has failed to capture the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.

McCain is at pains to separate himself from Bush, who is highly unpopular after nearly eight years in the White House. McCain said the nation's greatest moral shortcoming was its failure to "devote ourselves to causes greater than our self-interests."

After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, McCain said, there should have been a national push for joining the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations. That comment also appeared to be indirect criticism of Bush, who had urged tax cuts and more shopping to stimulate the economy at the time.

To the same question, Obama responded that the U.S. provides insufficient support to the disadvantaged, reminding that the Bible quotes Jesus as saying "whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me." He said the maxim should apply to victims of poverty, sexism and racism.

When asked about abortion, a key issue for many conservative Christians, McCain expressed his anti-abortion stand simply and quickly, saying human rights begin the instant that a human egg is fertilized. McCain, who adopted a daughter from Bangladesh, also called for making adoption easier as did Obama.

Obama, who supports legalized abortion, said he would limit abortions in the late stages of pregnancy if there are exceptions for the mother's health. He said he knew that people who consider themselves pro-life will find his stance "inadequate." He said the government should do more to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to help women who give birth, such as provide needed resources to the poor, as well as better adoption services. On another contentious issue _ gay marriage _ both men said marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Obama added that he supports civil unions for gay partners, giving them rights such as hospital visits with one another.

He said he opposed a constitutional ban on gay marriage, calling the matter a state issue.

McCain's answer was less clear. If a federal court ordered his state, Arizona, to honor gay marriages that are now allowed in Massachusetts, he said, "then I would favor a constitutional amendment. Until then, I believe the states should make the decisions within their own states."

Warren built the Saddleback in Lake Forest, California into a 23,000-member megachurch and has written the multimillion-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life," about helping people find meaning in life.

The forum offered Obama, who would be the first black American president, a chance to show his comfort talking about his Christian faith and to rebut rumors that he is a Muslim. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 12 percent of respondents believe the Democrat is Muslim. The son of a Kenyan father, Obama has the middle name Hussein and lived in the largely Muslim nation of Indonesia as a child. In several instances Saturday, the Illinois senator gave a Christian interpretation to his generally liberal political views. He said he is redeemed by Jesus, who died for his sins. The Obama campaign has been diligently courting religious voters with a presence on Christian radio and blogs, and through "American Values Forums" and other events.

While many of McCain's views, including opposition to abortion, match the outlook of conservative Christians, he is far less comfortable than Obama talking about religion. He did not participate in a spring forum at Messiah College near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who later ended her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, discussed religion and their personal lives.