John McCain, Barack Obama talk at Columbia

First joint appearance following conventions

NEW YORK -- For the first time since they formally accepted their parties' nominations and ahead of three scheduled debates, GOP presidential candidate John McCain and his Democrat rival Barack Obama appeared together at a forum on public service at Columbia University.

Unlike the debate series that kicks off Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi, the two didn't spar directly. McCain first answered questions, mostly about community service, on stage from PBS's Judy Woodruff and Time Magazine editor Rick Stengel. After McCain was interviewed for about 45 minutes, Woodruff introduced Obama and he walked onto the stage. Obama and McCain embraced, and then McCain left the same way Obama arrived.

The ServiceNation Forum was televised, with commercial breaks, on Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC, PBS and, at least in New York, by NY1. The commercials included T. Boone Pickens' spots about his energy plan as well as an AARP advocacy commercial. AARP was one of the sponsors of the service forum.

Most of the questions -- and the answers -- stayed away from drawing the differences between McCain and Obama. But McCain said that the partisan nature of Campaign 2008 could have eased if Obama had agreed to the series of town-hall style meetings that McCain had proposed and Obama rejected.

There was a spirit of community on Thursday, the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Penn. McCain had attended a remembrance ceremony in Shanksville, the site of the United 93 crash. Both candidates together attended a ceremony at the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.

"We should set aside this partnership, at least for this one day, and praise each other" and their commitment to service, McCain said.

McCain joked that he would ask Obama to serve in a Cabinet-level position on national service; Obama, speaking afterward, offered the same but wouldn't commit to McCain's offer.

"We've got a little work to do before we get to that point," Obama said.

Both candidates had connections to Columbia, with McCain's daughter having attended and Obama having attended as well.

Over on MSNBC, it was the first outing as anchor for David Gregory. Gregory over the weekend replaced the team of Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann for the channel's election-related coverage. Gregory will anchor MSNBC's coverage of the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate within the next month as well as the Nov. 4 election.

"This is a highly political event," Gregory told viewers. "A lot will be riding on their tenor, their tone." But afterward, Gregory said it was "a pretty high-minded." Fox News had Brit Hume and his panel discussing the event, with one analyst saying "there was no news here."

CNN carried the event but quickly moved over to coverage of Hurricane Ike, with Anderson Cooper in Texas and Campbell Brown in New York.