As far as the crowd is concerned, it was clear that McCain was the favorite. That was hardly a surprise; at a small gathering I attended a few years ago, someone asked Warren how many of his parishioners voted for John Kerry. He thought for a moment and said 15 percent. So the conservative Saddleback crowd, while happy to see Obama in their midst, was not going to be on his side. What they wanted was proof that John McCain was on theirs, and that’s what they got.
Again, rank-and-file evangelicals overwhelmingly supported McCain going in. There just wasn't much room for him to grow. (His numbers were only slightly lower than Bush's at the same point in 2004.) You can argue that evangelical elites were still pretty skeptical of McCain, and that he did something to ease their anxieties. But that's a different argument from the one York was making.
Relatedly, I don't understand giving McCain such high marks for being so much pithier and more direct. Bill Kristol writes today that:
Obama made no big mistakes. But his tendency to somewhat windy generalities meant he wasn’t particularly compelling. McCain, who went second, was crisp by contrast, and his anecdotes colorful.
Yes, agreed. But this was an audience that fundamentally agreed with McCain on almost all of the controversial issues facing the two candidates. If you agree with someone about something controversial, it costs you nothing to be direct and to the point about your position. If, on the other hand, you disagree with them, then rubbing their nose in it is the height of stupidity, at least if you're trying to win their vote. Obama's only option on questions like abortion and gay marriage was to be nuanced, reflective and a little abstract, giving evangelicals a chance to see that he's a man of good faith who shares a lot of their broader goals and values even if they disagree about specifics.
Had Obama been as direct as McCain, he'd have had to say, for example, that unborn life doesn't begin till the third trimester, at the earliest, and maybe not even then. Etc., etc. This would not have been a recipe for success.
Again, given the audience, he did about as well as he could have--I'm fairly certain that any white evangelical who watched had a higher opinion of him afterward than beforehand.
Which raises a final question: Who was the audience for Saturday night's discussion? A number of commentators have treated Saddleback as a typical mainstream campaign appearance because it was broadcast on all the big cable networks and because key moments get replayed endlessly in any case.
I think that analysis is flawed. My guess is that any political event that's billed as an evangelical forum and takes place at an evangelical church on a Saturday night during a climactic point in the Olympics is mostly going to attract a niche audience of pundits and evangelicals. And while key moments can clearly be replayed again and again, there was nothing particularly dramatic that would capture the imagination: No major faux pas (except perhaps McCain's defitinition of rich as having over $5 million), and no dramatic confrontations (mostly because the two candidates didn't engage one another directly).