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Candidates Promise National-Service Initiatives

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, who have fought particularly fiercely in the presidential campaign of late, looked more like allies at the ServiceNation forum.
Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, who have fought particularly fiercely in the presidential campaign of late, looked more like allies at the ServiceNation forum. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 12, 2008

NEW YORK, Sept. 11 -- Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain pledged to inspire a new commitment to public service Thursday, as they set aside the rancor of an intense presidential campaign during a two-hour forum on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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"The best way to commemorate, and the best way to show our appreciation for and our love and sympathy for the families of those who have sacrificed, is to serve our country," McCain said.

The question, Obama said later, is how to recreate the spirit of service "not just during times of tragedy, not just during 9/11, but how do we honor those who died, those who sacrificed . . . how do we honor them every day?"

In back-to-back conversations largely devoid of partisan recrimination, McCain (R-Ariz.) and Obama (D-Ill.) each urged Americans to honor the victims of the country's worst terrorist attack by dedicating their time to service through teaching, the military, the Peace Corps and faith-based volunteering.

But the reality of Campaign 2008 -- a contest that has turned particularly ugly in recent days -- was never far from the surface as both men were challenged by the questioners to explain the often angry tone of their competition for the White House.

McCain acknowledged the "rough" nature of the campaign and praised Obama's service as a community organizer -- something his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had mocked during her speech to the Republican national convention.

McCain defended Palin, saying she had been responding to a barrage of criticism of her own experience as a small-town mayor. But he appeared to chide his supporters who derided Obama's efforts as a young man.

"Of course I respect community organizers. Of course I respect people who serve their community," he said.

Obama did not disparage Palin's service as mayor of Wasilla, praising small-town mayors and noting the presence of many at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last month. "We yak in the Senate. They actually have to fill potholes, trim trees and make sure the garbage is collected," Obama said.

He expressed only "surprise" at Palin's decision to belittle his work as a community organizer, displaying no anger and keeping the sometimes subdued tone that some Democrats have argued he must shed if he is to rally Democrats and appeal to voters waiting for him to display his passion.

Obama called McCain's service in the military "legendary," adding that "one of the wonderful things about this campaign is his ability to share that story."

Some of the more lighthearted moments of the evening came when each man was asked if he would create a Cabinet-level position on public service -- and then appoint the other to it.

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