ABC’s Jennifer Duck and Sunlen Miller report:
The two presidential candidates came together for the second time on the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11 to talk about service in a forum sponsored by ServiceNation and TIME magazine. A brief handshake and pat on the back served as a break between each candidate’s solo segment with moderators.
Both had visited Ground Zero together earlier in the day.
“When I think of 9/11, I think of that spirit after the tragedy had occurred, how the outpouring of patriotism, emotion, volunteerism, the desire for service was in the minds of everyone," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said about his feelings of 9/11.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., echoed similar sentiments, and of bipartisanship. “We weren’t Republicans on Sept. 11, we weren’t Democrats, we were Americans.”
Moderator Judy Woodruff asked if McCain’s many years in Washington gives him the understanding of changes that need to be made. McCain, trying to distance his role as a Washington insider, responded, “Well, first of all, I wasn’t elected "Miss Congeniality" again this year. … And the fact is, I fought them, and fought them, and fought them. And we have achieved some reforms.”
Woodruff then pressed McCain on his running mate’s criticisms and sharp tone of Obama’s experience as a community organizer.
“First of all, this is a tough business,” McCain said, before defending his vice presidential pick.
“Look, Gov. Palin was responding to the criticism of her inexperience and her job as a mayor in a small town. That’s what she was responding to. Of course, I respect community organizers.”
McCain continued, “I admire mayors. Listen, mayors have the toughest job, I think, in America. It’s easy for me to go to Washington and, frankly, be somewhat divorced from the day-to-day challenges people have.”
Obama, when asked about the criticisms of his early community organizing days, was on the defense, saying he was surprised that his work was “belittled,” but praised Palin for her work as a mayor.
“Mayors have some of the toughest jobs in the country, because that’s where the rubber hits the road. We yak in the Senate. They actually have to fill potholes and trim trees and make sure the garbage is taken away.”
McCain praised Obama throughout the forum, saying he would work with him no matter what happens in November.
“Would you perhaps ask Sen. Obama to be a member of your Cabinet for national service?” moderator Rick Stengel asked.
“Yes,” McCain said with a laugh. “You know, every time we see a problem, we sort of — let’s create another Cabinet post. Now, we have got so many members of the Cabinet, that the Cabinet never meets, as you well know. So, I’d rather see a powerful, influential, outstanding person sitting in that office who I could literally deal with every day.”
Obama –- when asked if he would accept McCain’s offer –- said not just yet.
“We’ve got a little work to do before we get to that point,” Obama said, laughing.
When asked, if he won the presidency, if he would ask McCain to be a member of his Cabinet for national service, Obama said yes, and joked again, “I mean, if this is the deal he wants to make right now.”
The forum also raised an interesting point about the ROTC program, which is absent at Columbia University, where the forum was held. Both candidates have ties to the university — McCain’s daughter Meghan attended the school, and it is Obama’s alma mater.
“Frankly, we’re here in a wonderful institution. I’m proud that my daughter graduated from this school. But do you know that this school will not allow ROTC on this campus?” McCain said at one point to roaring applause both inside and outside the auditorium where a group of students gathered to watch the speeches on an outdoor big screen TV.
“I don’t think that’s right,” McCain continued. “Shouldn’t the students here be exposed to the attractiveness of serving in the military, particularly as an officer? So, maybe — I would hope that these universities … would re-examine that policy of not even allowing people who come here to represent the military, and other Ivy League schools, and then maybe they will be able to attract some more.”
Obama agreed, calling it a “mistake” to not let ROTC on campus. “I recognize that there are students here who have differences in terms of military policy. But the notion that young people here at Columbia or anywhere, in any university, aren’t offered the choice, the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake.”
The cordial event was a brief respite of the fierce back and forth on the campaign trail this week. Obama will campaign in New Hampshire over the weekend, and McCain will be in New York and Washington, D.C.
The presidential contenders won’t be seen on stage together again until the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 in Mississippi.