Page last updated at 09:40 GMT, Sunday, 17 August 2008 10:40 UK

US rivals shine at church forum

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Lake Forest, California

Audience reaction to the debate

The crowd in the cavernous auditorium were well-dressed, largely white and impeccably polite.

In the unforgiving sun they had queued to go through security screening and take their seats. Helicopters buzzed overhead and secret service look-outs prowled the roof.

Inside, a well-dressed band played soft rock, interspersed with singers belting out devotion.

When a steely-jawed MC introduced the national anthem, everyone in the auditorium stood up, and, to my amazement, so did most of the people in our press tent.

Even when the sound feed to the press tent faltered and died through the first notes, members of the press corps started their own sing-along of the Star Spangled Banner (your correspondent not included). This was clearly a patriotic crowd both inside and out.

Heckling 'unthinkable'

Billed as the first joint appearance by both presidential hopefuls, it was tightly controlled to avoid clashes.

John McCain and Barak Obama hug each other
Mr McCain and Mr Obama also hugged each other on the stage

This was not a debate. It was a "civil forum" organised by Saddleback Church, a huge and hugely influential ministry run by Pastor Rick Warren, a multi-million selling author.

He arrived on stage with smiles and to great applause. He joked with the crowd, fully aware of the banks of cameras lined along the back wall, the two tents full of journalists watching on screens outside and the millions of people watching live on TV.

This was a well-organised television event. When we journalists arrived, not only were we given our access passes and parking passes, but also a detailed schedule of events, complete with several commercial breaks, each timed at exactly three minutes and 15 seconds.

The questions had been devised by the pastor, with some suggestions from others, but they had not come from the audience. There was no chance for audience participation and in an environment as polite as this, any heckling would have been unthinkable.

The candidates were not put in difficult positions: they did not share the stage and there was no opportunity for prickly body language or angry rebuttals.

First Barack Obama was asked questions, for an hour, by the pastor. Then John McCain faced the same.

The only time they were on stage together was at the end of Mr Obama's session when Pastor Warren thanked him and introduced Mr McCain.

The two candidates shook hands. Mr Obama went in for a hug and McCain awkwardly complied.

The questions were carefully chosen: "What was your greatest moral failure?", "Who are the three wisest people in your life?" and, finally for each, a simple one but a toughie: "Why do you want to be president?"

'Saved and forgiven'

The solo sessions actually provided an interesting comparison between the candidates. It allowed them to answer the questions without being attacked, as they might be in a debate scenario. In a way, it took the politics out of a political event.

Their answers revealed much.

Barack Obama, when asked "what does it mean to you to believe in Christ?" talked at length about his Christian faith, while John McCain simply answered: "I'm saved and forgiven."

Mr McCain then went on to tell an often heard story about his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, when a guard loosened his ties and on Christmas Day drew a cross in the dirt, allowing them both to pray.

In fact, Mr McCain spent a lot of time telling stories of Vietnam. It was, understandably, a pivotal time in his life and one that he draws much inspiration from. The audience appreciated it.

By contrast, it was Barack Obama who made much of his Christian beliefs and how they would underpin his presidency. And the audience appreciated this too.

Yet Mr Obama had the harder time. America's conservative Christians traditionally vote Republican and - even though they are less enthusiastic about John McCain than, say, George Bush - the majority still look likely to support him come November.

Mr McCain was, as it were, preaching to the converted, and drew many more cheers, quite a few laughs and louder applause.

However, this huge voting group (one estimate suggests 1 in 4 American adults call themselves born-again Christians) is fragmented as never before.

Some 12% of them, according to opinion polls, say they are undecided. That is a lot of votes and Mr Obama and Mr McCain both know that.

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