The U.S. presidential candidates tried to woo conservative Christian voters during a Saturday night appearance at a religious forum, where Democrat Barack Obama has a chance to fight persistent rumors that he is Muslim and siphon some votes from Republican rival John McCain.
Religious conservatives have largely supported the Republican Party, and many of McCain's positions are more in line with the evangelical Christian worldview. But he is uncomfortable talking about his personal beliefs and has not created much excitement among the bloc that helped push President George W. Bush into office.
Conservative Christians comprise about one-quarter of the U.S. electorate.
Obama's appearance at a forum at the California church of influential pastor Rick Warren underscored the gulf between him and America's most conservative religious voters on issues such as abortion and gay rights.
However, it also offered Obama a chance to show his comfort talking about his Christian faith and to rebut rumors that he is a Muslim. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 12 percent of respondents believe the Democrat is Muslim.
When asked about gay marriage, a key issue with many conservative Christians, Obama, who went first during the forum, reaffirmed his stance that marriage is "the union between a man and a woman," although he supports civil unions for gay partners.
Obama also said America's greatest moral failure is its insufficient help to the disadvantaged.
The son of a Kenyan father, Obama has the middle name Hussein and lived in the largely Muslim nation of Indonesia as a child.
The Obama campaign has been diligently courting religious voters with a presence on Christian radio and blogs, and through "American Values Forums" and other events.
While many of the McCain's views, including opposition to abortion, match the outlook of conservative Christians, he is far less comfortable than Obama talking about religion. He did not participate in a spring forum at Messiah College near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed religion and their personal lives.
McCain, who goes second during the forum, supporters have taken to circulating excerpts from his memoir "Faith of Our Fathers,' that explain his beliefs. He recently met privately with Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, one of the most vocal U.S. bishops on the duty of Catholics to make the abortion issue a priority in choosing public leaders.
Yet, many evangelical leaders have backed McCain only reluctantly. An he put conservative Christians on edge this week by floating the prospect of picking a running mate who supports abortion rights.
Warren is an anti-abortion Southern Baptist who is nonetheless part of a shift away from the religious right's strict focus on abortion and marriage. The environment, poverty ad education have also become pressing concerns, especially for younger evangelicals.
Warren is best known for building Saddleback Church into a 23,000-member megachurch in Lake Forest, California, and for writing the multimillion-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life," about helping people find meaning ad purpose in life.
He and his wife, Kay, are also leading advocates for HIV/AIDS victims worldwide. They have invested enormous resources in their PEACE Plan, now under way in Rwanda, which aims to combat corruption, illiteracy and other social problems through church partnerships with government and buiness.
Meanwhile, Obama's campaign announced that it raised more than $51 million in July and the Democratic National Committee reported $27.7 million in donations last month. His July total was slightly less than the $52 million he raised in June.
Obama's Internet-powered fundraising efforts have shatered all previous records for a presidential campaign, bringing in a total of $390 million so far. The Illinois senator has announced he will forgo public financing for the general election, giving up $84 million in taxpayer money for the final two months of the campaign and committing himself to a steady paceof fundraising.
By contrast, McCain has raised just $140 million and has agreed to accept public financing for the general election and the spending restraints that come with it. McCain has remained competitive, however, because of the fundraising success of the Republican National Committee
McCain's ampaign said Friday he had raised $27 million in July, his biggest monthly haul since clinching the party's nomination. McCain's campaign reported having $21 million available to spend.