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McCain, Obama to Appear at Evangelical Non-Debate

Marc Ambinder reports that Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama will make their first — and only — joint appearance before the national conventions at an Aug. 16 forum. The event will be moderated by Evangelical leader Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif. Unfortunately, while both presumptive nominees will attend the event, they will not share the stage and engage in a "debate." Rather, they will appear one after the other. From a press release, via Ambinder:

Warren confirmed that, at the candidates’ request, this two-hour event from 5-7 p.m. (PDT) will be held in a non-debate format and open to all media. Both candidates also requested that questions be posed exclusively by Warren, instead of a panel or members of the audience. Each will converse separately with Warren for approximately one hour, beginning with Sen. Obama as determined by a coin toss. This historic forum will be the only joint campaign event prior to each party’s national convention.

So why would the Obama choose this event to appear with McCain, after thus far declining McCain’s open invitation to share the stage at any of McCain’s Thursday town hall meetings? It makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, the event is not a town hall, McCain’s preferred method of interacting with the public. McCain has demonstrated that the town hall does allow a more personal line of communication with voters, but it can also be risky. If some members of the audience are less-than-sympathetic to the candidate, it can make for some unflattering local TV coverage. This can be particularly damaging because almost all McCain’s town hall meetings take place in swing states, with high percentages of independent voters.

Second, while a recent Washington Post/ABC poll shows McCain with a commanding lead over Obama among white Evangelical voters — by a margin of 68 percent to 22 percent — Obama’s numbers are on par with Sen. John Kerry’s performance in 2004. Kerry won approximately 21 percent of the Evangelical vote. This year, Obama has an advantage in the fact that he is not facing an opponent who self-identifies as an Evangelical — as President George W. Bush does — and McCain appears to be much more reserved in discussing his faith than Obama. Furthermore, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and The Press, exit polling in 2000 and 2004 found 23 percent of general election voters identified as Evangelical Christians. If Obama can convince even a small percentage of this huge voting bloc to support him, that could translate to a shift of hundreds of thousands of votes in key Midwestern battleground states — like Ohio, Indiana and Missouri — which could, in turn, tip the election.

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