09/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Saddleback: A Watershed Moment?

I spent a good part of Saturday at Saddleback Church, in Orange County, CA blogging live on the Obama-McCain debate, but felt too close to the action to provide analysis so I decided to wait a bit and weigh in after I had a chance to absorb all that I had seen and heard.

I was sorely tempted to skip the debate altogether when I got an email informing me that I'd be "covering" the event from a tent on the Saddleback campus where print journalists were to be exiled to. I decided I'd have more fun in the sanctuary where I could experience the crowd and the candidates first hand so I made my way into the sanctuary where I began to blog only to be ejected by a Secret Service agent who said I was to go back to the tent. After wrangling a ticket, said agent again tried to eject me, but eyeing my ticket said I could stay but not my computer. We worked out a compromise that allowed me to hang out with the TV crews and I was able to get my first scoop of the evening when I learned that the evening's moderator Rick Warren was sick, and I filed my first reports here. and here

Some observations:

Obama started strong. In fact, just showing up at this kind of an event which Democrats of yesteryear might not have gone to was a victory for him. But after a few minutes he seemed to run out of steam. I don't think the blame lies with which candidate had or didn't have questions ahead of time. I blame Obama's performance on Hawaii and the strategic mistake his campaign made by scheduling such an important event so close to the end of his vacation. Obama looked like I feel for the first few days after I get back from vacation: listless, too relaxed and wishing I was still on vacation. His mind was elsewhere.

His answers were measured, thoughtful and nuanced-the only problem was this wasn't a crowd that was looking for nuance. They were looking for what McCain offered up: straight, concise and clear answers.

There were a couple of key moments that I think will be remembered and we may very well look back on this event as a watershed moment in the race for the White House:

First, when Obama answered the 'when does a baby gain rights' question his answer that it was "above his pay grade" didn't seem flippant to me at the time, but upon reflection I can see why some in the crowd thought so. It was a tough question to be sure, but he would have been better off answering that he didn't know or offering up an obvious answer that would fit the pro-choice paradigm: that rights are accorded to a fetus at birth.

As for McCain, the money moment was his admission that his greatest moral failure was the demise of his first marriage. This was exactly what churchgoers needed to hear and this will inoculate him from attacks that are likely to come late in the campaign about the manner and timing of his parting with his first wife. Although we learned later that he knew the question was coming, for a split second he hesitated as though he was still trying to decide whether he should really go there. He did and it was exactly what the crowd wanted to hear.

His answer on when a fetus acquired rights (at conception) was clear and direct and the crowd ate it up.

Although McCain likely thinks that his story about the Vietnamese prison guard who drew a cross in the sand was a hit, I don't think it was terribly impressive. As someone once observed, that story is really a testimony about the faith of the guard and not McCain. It wasn't a dud, but it's the kind of story one tells about another when one's own story isn't quite good enough.

McCain also didn't endear himself to wives across America when he failed to name his wife as one of the people he would turn to for advice. I realize she's not an expert on Georgia or the Ukraine, but it would be nice to think that he a) considers her wise and b) would turn to her for general advice.

There has been much reporting about the cone of silence issue as well as whether or not the questions were given to each candidate ahead of time. Only McCain knows if he cheated, but it didn't seem to me as if he had heard Obama's performance and as I said, I blame the vacation planning not any advance notice for the gap in their performances. At one point Obama referenced having been forewarned about a question and a PBS reporter and I exchanged glances and commented to each other that it seemed as though there had been some advance notice.

Obama hit a homerun with his comment that he considered anybody who had sold 25 million copies to be rich. Never mind that Warren's sales are now up to 40 million, the comment was a hit even with this crowd of Warren supporters who are likely hoping that Warren's ego doesn't grow in tandem with his book sales.

As for Rick Warren, I think he acquitted himself well. I was expecting softball questions with no serious follow ups. What we got instead were smart, hardball questions with few followups and too many interruptions. It wasn't quite as bad as Charlie Rose who talks 25% of the time and interrupts regularly, but Warren's interruptions prevented us from hearing where McCain and Obama would have come down on the question of the Supreme Court's centrist, Anthony Kennedy. Would they have nominated Kennedy? We'll never know because Warren didn't let them finish their sentences.

I once heard Warren speak at a conference in Silicon Valley and remarked at the time to friends that this was "not your parents' televangelist." He's light years away from the charlatans of the '80's, sophisticated and smart and has taken steps to not repeat the mistakes other high profile preachers have made. Giving back his salary to the church for the past 30 years was smart as is driving the same car, living in the same house and giving away 90% of his income. But it was disappointing to see that church members who, presumably, already give a tenth of their income to the church, were having to pay upwards of $2,000 to buy tickets to attend an event at their own church. In fact as I was leaving the event I ran into a recent college graduate who had eagerly told me last year of his decision to be baptized at Saddleback. He said he had gotten all of his questions answered about the candidates. I didn't ask him who he had decided to vote for but I did ask him how much the ticket had cost him. $500 he replied, which is probably a week's salary for him. There's something not right about that.

I hope Saddleback will take all of the money they raised last Saturday, deduct the hard costs of the event, and then return whatever money is left over on a pro-rated basis to those who attended. It's the right thing to do and of all people, Rick Warren should have taken steps to avoid even the slightest appearance of his flock being fleeced.

Nevertheless, this event established Warren not just as America's pastor but also a referee of sorts who tried valiantly to hide his own biases and gave both candidates a fair hearing.

John McCain and Barack Obama came to Saddleback essentially tied. Although Obama wins points for showing up, McCain was the clear winner and we may look back on this night as the moment when the tide shifted and McCain began to secure his wayward churchgoing base of voters who realize that he's not quite one of them, but will likely vote him anyway.