LAKE FOREST, California (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama cited his youthful experimentation with drugs and alcohol as his greatest moral failing on Saturday at a forum on faith and values that also featured Republican John McCain.
The Illinois senator touched on emotional and controversial topics in the religious community, ranging from his support of abortion rights to his backing of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
The televised discussion, moderated by one of the country’s leading evangelicals, Rick Warren, was an opportunity for both candidates to reach out to religious voters who will be a key voting bloc in the November election.
“I had a difficult youth,” Obama said when Warren asked about his greatest moral failing. “There were times when I experimented with drugs.”
Obama has written previously about his drug use but rarely discusses it in public. He said he traced that behaviour to a “certain selfishness on my part” that was part of his growing up process.
More broadly, Obama said one of the country’s biggest moral failings involved its treatment of the poor.
Obama and McCain met briefly on stage between their respective appearances. Both have struggled for different reasons to garner support in the religious community.
Obama, a Christian, has had to repeatedly debunk rumours that he is Muslim and was forced to distance himself from a controversial former pastor.
McCain, who grew up Episcopalian but now attends an evangelical Southern Baptist church in Arizona, has had trouble winning over conservative evangelicals because of his past support for stem cell research and his blunt criticism of the movement’s leaders in 2000.
But the Arizona senator’s opposition to abortion has redeemed him in the eyes of many in that religious community.
Obama touched on the abortion issue in his portion of the questioning. He said he supported a woman’s right to have an abortion but wanted to work to reduce the number of such procedures.
Evangelicals account for one in four U.S. adults and have become a key conservative base for the Republican Party with a strong focus in the past on opposition to abortion and gay rights and the promotion of “traditional” family values.
Such issues delivered almost 80 percent of the white evangelical Protestant vote to President George W. Bush in 2004 but the movement is more fractured and restless this year though it remains largely in the Republican camp.
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Eric Beech