Saddleback up

It's not clear who won the Rick Warren evangelical grilling Saturday night, and maybe McCain cheated.

Published August 18, 2008 1:14PM (EDT)

Because the Rick Warren-hosted conversations with Barack Obama and John McCain fell on a Saturday night -- although I watched it Sunday night on CNN's rebroadcast, here in War Room it's OK to admit you devoted your Saturday night to watching -- it seems like a good idea to open the week with a twofold question for Salon readers: Who "won" this damn thing, and does it really matter? (Also: Be sure to check out on-site coverage from Salon's own Mike Madden here and here, plus Joan Walsh's commentary here.)

Taking the second first, I am not sure it does. Christine Wicker, a former Dallas Morning News religion reporter and author of a new book called "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation," has said that the big story is that evangelicals are losing numbers. On the other hand, of the oft-cited quarter of the country who are self-described evangelicals, she claims that only 7 percent are hardcore, while fully 18 percent are swing voters. So maybe (white) evangelicals are really in play after all. Team Obama obviously thinks the Democrat needs to cut into their margins a wee bit. (Sidebar: Why is Wicker, a Southerner from a sixth-generation evangelical family, not getting much attention for her book from the supposedly liberal media right now?)

As to the first, at the two polar extremes we might say Obama looked tepid, too nuanced and pandering all at once, while McCain gave the pithy, confident, take-no-prisoners, applause-garnering answers; on the other, we could say that Obama did pretty well given the hostile environment and the fact that McCain may have cheated by not actually being held in some "cone of silence" Warren assured everyone at the beginning of the broadcast that McCain was sequestered in. (Watching an ex post interview of Warren by that annoying Rick Sanchez on CNN -- is there a television desk-head who is more phony, contrived and overwrought in his on-air facial and body motions than this guy? -- I noted that Warren didn't exactly come clean about his own error, and basically said we have to take McCain at his word. Huh? This is a politician and presidential aspirant we're talking about here, folks, and Warren himself sounded like a spin-minded pol himself who can't be fully trusted to straight-shoot either. Sigh.)

Of course, as ever the truth probably resides somewhere between the extremes. I think Obama looked somewhat anemic and was a bit too elliptical in his answers. But his job was to survive and create a sense of comfort for voters with him and his candidacy -- and as much if not more so for the general audience nationally and media analysts than the immediate audience of evangelicals. McCain was talking more directly to base voters he needs to assuage and motivate, which is why he so often turned his head to face the immediate Saddleback audience in the arena.*

In short, Obama played it safe and McCain played to the crowd. If Obama got the worst of it -- possible cheating by McCain or not -- the good news is that it happened on a Saturday night in the middle of August when nobody was watching. Except us pathetic political junkies, that is.

*I'm sorry, I've seen these new-era "churches" and I find it hard to call them churches in the architectural sense of the term. Notre Dame in Paris or the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona are churches; the newfangled evangelical flat malls with the coffee shops and day-care centers are box stores with pews. And beware using the functional definition of "church" to include any place where spiritual reflection or worship takes place, because that means whenever some dude taking a whiz at a rest stop off the Jersey Turnpike uses the moment to reflect in silent prayer, well, that becomes a "church," too.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.