Barack Obama and John McCain drew stark contrasts between themselves at a Christian faith forum in California, acquiescing when asked to delve publicly into their souls and their past sins while straining to reach out to conservative, born-again voters.
The event, watched live by about 2,800 people on site as well as by cable television viewers across the country, was held late on Saturday on the sprawling campus of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest with the candidates each submitting to hour-long, question-and-answer sessions from its pastor, the Rev Rick Warren. It was widely seen as the kick-off to the final 10-week sprint for the White House.
It also served as a prelude to the three formal presidential debates before the 4 November election and was the first time the candidates met in person since securing their nominations. Even though their time on the stage together lasted less than a minute, it was long enough for Mr Obama to draw his Republican opponent into a close hug.
The questions to each man were identical and took them into territories of religious faith, personal philosophy and morality as well as taxation, foreign policy, education and welfare reform. When asked about the worst mistakes they had made in their lives, Mr McCain recalled the disintegration of his first marriage and the Democrat reflected on his lapses into alcohol and drug abuse as a teenager. While Mr McCain quickly won applause from the crowd with crisp answers designed to reinforce his Christian conservative credentials, Mr Obama, looking rested and relaxed after a week's holiday in Hawaii, took a little longer with more meandering answers but eventually earned a standing ovation also.
On several issues, the divide between them was clear. On abortion, Mr McCain did not hesitate when asked when an unborn child should be accorded human rights. At the moment of conception, he said. The Illinois senator, who is pro-choice, said it was "above my pay grade" to answer that question. But he repeated his support for abortion rights with some limits for late-term abortion unless the mother's health is at risk.
They took different paths on gay marriage, with Mr Obama voicing opposition to a ballot initiative before voters in California to declare same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Mr McCain, an Episcopalian who attends a Baptist church, supports the proposed amendment. Neither voiced support for same-sex marriage as such, but his rival said he backs civil unions for gays and lesbians ensuring them the same legal rights as heterosexual couples.
Both men face challenges with Christian conservatives, who account for as much as a quarter of the American electorate. The group was important in delivering the White House to George Bush twice. Mr Obama continues to fight internet rumours that he is, or was at some point, a Muslim. At the same time, he must overcome the stains left by his former membership of the Trinity United Church in Chicago while it was under the leadership of the Rev Jeremiah Wright. The Arizona senator, on the other hand, has long faced an uphill climb convincing some Christian conservatives he is really on their side, partly because of past moderate views on immigration. Nonetheless, a recent CNN opinion poll suggests that on election day, Mr McCain is assured the support of 68 per cent of these voters compared to just 24 per cent for Mr Obama.
With the race between them still tight – the Democrat challenger clings to a lead of about 3 points – the meeting at the mega-church opens the gates to the last phase of this presidential election season, which has already run for 18 months, consumed about $1bn (£500m) in campaign spending and captured the imagination of much of the world.
History has been made and will be whatever happens in November. Mr McCain, soon to turn 72, hopes to become the oldest president at the time of his first election. Mr Obama is running to be the country's first black leader after defeating Hillary Clinton in the primary season, who was vying to be the first female president.
The roller-coaster ride may soon become more thrilling still. The Democratic Party convention begins one week from today in Denver, leaving Mr Obama only a few days to announce his choice of running mate. Mr McCain will have to do the same in short order, as his party's convention, in St Paul, Minnesota, follows directly afterwards.
"We are now entering one of the most intense political periods that we have ever seen," commented Rick Davis, Mr McCain's campaign manager. "We are jamming in a lot of major events, the selection of each candidate's vice-president, their national conventions, the debates and election day."
Guessing Mr Obama's choice for running mate or when he might reveal it remained a fool's game. The senator was planning campaign appearances in several battleground states this week, including Florida. Yesterday he dropped into Nevada for talks with T Boone Pickens, the Texas oil tycoon who has launched a campaign to push wind energy as the answer to reducing the country's dependence on foreign oil.
What the candidates said
*What was your greatest moral failure?
Obama: Well, in my own life, I'd break it up into two stages. I had a difficult youth. My father wasn't in the house. I've written about this. There were times when I experimented with drugs. I drank, you know, in my teenage years, and I traced this to a certain selfish necessary on my part. I was so obsessed with me and the reasons that I might be dissatisfied that I couldn't focus on other people. The process for me of growing up was to recognise that it's not about me.
McCain: My greatest moral failing – and I have been a very imperfect person – is the failure of my first marriage. It's my greatest moral failure. America's greatest moral failure has been, throughout our existence, perhaps, we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest, although we've been the best at it of anybody in the world.
*Who are the three wisest people in your life?
Obama: I don't think I'd restrict myself to three people. There are people like Sam Nunn, a democrat, or Dick Lugar, a Republican, who I listened to on domestic policy. I've got friends ranging from Ted Kennedy to Tom Colbert who don't necessarily agree on a lot of things but who both, I think, have a sincere desire to see this country improve.
McCain: First one, I think, would be General David Petraeus, one of the great military leaders in American history – who took us from defeat to victory in Iraq. One of the great leaders. Meg Whiteman, the CEO of e-Bay. Twelve years ago, there were five employees, today there are one and a half million people that make a living off [e-Bay] in America [and] in the world.
*Does evil exist/ What do we about it?
Obama: Evil does exist. We see evil in Darfur, on the streets of our cities and in parents who have viciously abused their children. It has to be confronted squarely and one of the things that I strongly believe is that we are not going to be able to erase evil from the world. That is God's task. We need humility in how we approach the issue. A lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront it.
McCain: We defeat it. If I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice and I know how. No one should be allowed to take thousands of American – innocent American – lives. Of course evil must be defeated. We are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century – radical Islamic extremists. Our troops will come home with honour and victory and not in defeat.