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McCain's back in the Saddleback

From NBC's Chuck Todd
Normally, on a night like tonight, we here at First Read would have
been liveblogging every moment of Rick Warren's presidential forum. But
with the Olympics and the fact this is THE Saturday Michael Phelps will
be making history, we kept our liveblogging in check.

It turns out, actually, we should have been because this was a pretty
good scrimmage and there's a lot to learn from these back-to-back
appearances by John McCain and Barack Obama.

Quick first impressions: Obama spent more time trying to impress Warren
(or to put another away) not offend Warren while McCain seemingly
ignored Warren and decided he was talking to folks watching on TV. The
McCain way of handling this forum is usually the winning way. Obama may
have had more authentic moments but McCain was impressively on message.

This was a mistake Obama made a few times during the primary season. On one hand, it can make a moderator feel good when their subject actually tries to answer every question and take into account their opinions on a particular topic. And Obama's supporters will email me tonight and say this is what they love about him.

And yet, this reminded me of the many comparisons we made between Obama and Hillary Clinton. She was much more effective at answering questions in 90 seconds and always staying on message while Obama too easily allowed himself to get knocked off his talking points. Remember, Obama doesn't need to win over his supporters, he needs folks who are just now tuning in.

Take the VERY first question Warren posed to both candidates: who are three people you'll depend on for wisdom in the presidency. Obama seemed to answer this in a very personal way, talking about his wife and grandmother. McCain went right to this message, checking boxes on Iraq (Patraeus) and the economy (Whitman) for instance. Now, I'm betting Obama's answer came across as more authentic but McCain's was probably more effective with undecided swing voters.

The two answered the Supreme Court justice question VERY differently, with Obama seemingly trying to say a nice thing or two about justices he disagreed with, while McCain went right to pander mode in his answer. And yet, McCain's straightforward answer easily penetrated while Obama's did not.

Every Obama answer was certainly thoughtful enough but he seemed to want to explain himself too much and went out of his way not to offend folks who disagree with him.

Don't get me wrong, this will play well with some but McCain's directness and snappy answers that were on message allowed him to look commanding on that stage.

Warren may come away from this experience liking Obama more and respecting the fact that he seemed to take pains to not offend him and respect their disagreements. But I'm betting that if a focus group of undecided voters were watching this, they'd come away having a clearer understanding of McCain's beliefs.

Overall, this was a fascinating event because the contrast between the two candidates was so clear. The quesitons were made to order of McCain in the early going and that allowed him to get comfortable quickly. This was always going to be a tough venue for any Democrat, including one who is as comfortable talking about his faith as Obama is.

Obama better be thankful for the timing of this; he seemed a little rusty and clearly has some work to do before he meets McCain face-to-face on Sept. 26, the night of the first presidential debate in Oxford, MS.