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Live-blogging the ServiceNation Summit

September 11, 2008 |  5:46 pm

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7:15 p.m. Well, that was civil.

Obama and McCain said what we expected them to say ("community service is good") and the moderators were exceedingly deferential. Woodruff and Stengel avoided the direct, controversial questions that made the Saddleback Forum so interesting (there was no mention tonight of abortion, or gay marriage, or what, exactly, constitutes "rich").

Both candidates performed well and appeared to be more comfortable than they had been at Saddleback. Obama, who had been criticized for being too circuitous in his talk with Pastor Rick Warren, tonight seemed more direct.   

But the most interesting aspect of the event was what was missing. Both candidates avoided talking about the mud-slinging in this campaign, which has been getting messier by the day. We heard no attacks on character tonight, no sly references to pigs wearing lipstick

Instead, the candidates were complimentary and the mood was conciliatory. It felt, for a brief moment, like a break.

Savor it, folks. These things don't last long. 

Thanks for reading, and have a lovely night.   

6:44 p.m. It’s over! Obama has risen and is waving goodbye. Those hoping for a reprisal of Obama and McCain's earlier awkward handshake are sorely disappointed. It doesn't look like McCain is coming back on stage.

6:38 p.m. Obama, when asked if there is anything that the government can do to encourage service, says that government needs to fix itself before it can inspire Americans.

"Part of my job as president of America is to make government cool again," he says, to a smattering . . .

. . . . of laughter.

6:32 p.m. Obama thinks mayors have it bad, too!

“Mayors have some of the toughest jobs in the country,” he says. “While we’re yakking away in the Senate, [mayors] have to fill potholes, trim trees and make sure the garbage is thrown away.”

6:25 p.m. Richard Stengel brings up a subject that has caused a lot of contention on Columbia's campus -- the administration's decision to not allow ROTC on campus. McCain had said earlier that he thought the ROTC ban was a disgrace, and that every student should have a chance to learn about the possibilities of military service.

Stengel asks Obama, "Should Columbia, an elite University, bring back the ROTC?" 

Obama's reply: "Yes."

6:21 p.m. Columbia security reports that there are about  5,000 people outside the auditorium watching the forum unfold on jumbo-trons.

6:19 p.m. Obama and McCain disagree (not surprisingly) over the role that government should play in encouraging Americans to engage in community service.

Obama just listed a slew of government service programs that he would like to see started and existing programs that he would like to see expanded. He has said in the past that community service should be compulsory for college students in the country.

McCain, when asked, said he didn't think government should force community service on citizens because Americans are naturally compelled to help each other.

They agree on point, though. Both think that faith-based groups should play a major role community service.

5:58 p.m. Yikes. This is awkward. McCain's time is up. Nobody knows when Obama is coming on stage. Woodruff's mic is on, and we hear her begin to panic about what comes next.

Suddely, Obama strides onstage. He and McCain shake hands and McCain walks quickly off. Because of Woodruff's hot mic, the audience hears every word of Woodruff's small talk with Obama.

Thank God for commerical breaks.

5:50 p.m. Woodruff asks McCain a pointed question, obviously referring to the McCain campaign's recent stepped-up attack ads: “Do you think it is naive of people to expect that politics could be a little less rough and tumble and even nasty?”

After a bit of hemming and hawing, McCain responds, “I think it’s very important that we focus on issues.”

This contradicts something that his campaign manager, Rick Davis, said last week. Davis told the editors of the Washington Post: "This election is not about the issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

5:40 p.m. McCain goes on the defensive when Woodruff asks him about something Sarah Palin said at the Republican National Convention (Palin disparaged Obama's work as a community organizer, saying, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.")

"First of all, this is a tough business," McCain tells Woodruff, before insisting that Palin was simply responding to those who have suggested that she doesn't have enough experience.

McCain then defends her qualification. "Mayors have the toughest job, I think, in America," he says. He may live to regret that one.

5:22 p.m. Woodruff points out that volunteering is often a luxury, and that many Americans who do service work are “people of means.”

McCain disagrees. "In all due respect to rich people," he starts, before pausing and pointing at the laughing audience. He goes on to say that he thinks that average citizens are the most common volunteers.

5:15 p.m. McCain is on stage. He will be interviewed for one hour. The first several questions are about how the government can compel Americans to serve their nation. McCain takes this as an opportunity to talk about government reform, a theme he has stressed consistently in this campaign (and even more so now that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is on board).

4:59 p.m. The event has just begun. Richard Stengel and Judy Woodruff are on stage, giving details on each candidate's background in service.

There looks to be a packed house.

Tonight is a homecoming of sorts for Obama. He graduated from Columbia in 1983. But this is his first appearance on campus since he began his run for president.

McCain also has ties to Columbia. His daughter, Meghan, graduated from the school in 2007.

4:40 p.m. It wouldn't be New York if there weren't a few famous faces in the crowd. The Columbia Spectator reports that rocker Jon Bon Jovi is inside Roone Arledge auditorium, and reporters for Bwog.net, the school's blog, say they have spotted R&B singer Usher. 

Other big names who have apparently reserved seats, according to the Spectator: Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael J. Fox, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Caroline Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

4:23 p.m. Hello, all.

This afternoon we will be live-blogging John McCain and Barack Obama's appearance at the ServiceNation Summit in New York City. It begins at 8 p.m. EST. We'll have a play-by-play of the candidates' conversations with moderators Richard Stengel (Time magazine editor) and Judy Woodruff (PBS "News Hour" anchor) as well as some analysis.

Like last month's Saddleback Church forum, tonight's event at Columbia University will not be a debate. Obama and McCain will give separate speeches about public service, but we're told they will appear onstage together. It will be the second time the candidates have appeared on the same stage since they won enough votes in the primaries to claim their parties' nominations.

A lot has changed since Saddleback. Vice presidential running mates have been revealed. The race has tightened. Things have gotten ugly. And while the nature of this evening's event (as well as today's date) means that things probably won't get too contentious, we can expect it to be tense.

"Service" has been an important theme in both campaigns. McCain often tries to portray himself as a dedicated public servant, pointing to his Naval career and long time in the Senate as proof that he has dedicated his life to giving back (don't forget, the theme of this year's Republican National Convention was "Service First"). Obama likes to talk to voters about his time as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he worked with working class families.

We'll probably hear both of these narratives repeated tonight. It will be interesting to see whether the canidates mention their running mates.

The forum begins in about 40 minutes. To watch live coverage alongside us, you can tune in to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and C-SPAN.

— Kate Linthicum

Photo: AP Photo/Chris Carlson

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