WELL, I DIDN'T see Jesus, but I think I saw the light.

This was at that Democrats-meet-God event Sunday night on the campus of a not-so-subtly named rural religious school, Messiah College, in central Pennsylvania just south of Harrisburg.

The unusual gig put rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, first one, then the other, in the hot seat of talking about their spiritual sides.

Clinton went first and grabbed for the grail with a line from a (pick your favorite) TV evangelist: "Ever since I was a child, I've felt the enveloping presence of God."

Obama wasted no time dispelling any suspicions about ties to Islam: "I am a devout Christian."

Especially noteworthy was how calm, sedate, even pious they were given the hellfire they throw at each other elsewhere.

It was two kids who kick and scratch on the playground settling down in Sunday school.

It was broadcast live on CNN, moderated by the network's Campbell Brown and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham.

It was billed as a "Compassion Forum" (I think both candidates favor compassion) and snubbed by John McCain despite common knowledge that God's a registered Republican.

Guess McCain feels no need to play to the heavenly base.

Its focus was getting beyond abortion and gay marriage to examine how or if faith informs or should inform policy on poverty, AIDS, torture and more.

Both candidates, in my view, handled themselves and most questions well.

I'm just not sure they won God over.

If there was an advantage gained, it was for the Democratic Party, sometimes viewed by members of the faith community as hedonistic, godless baby-killers.

(Predictably, a few protesters outside the event held up those large posters picturing chopped up fetuses because, well, what's a political gathering without that?)

If there was anything lost, or at least loosened, it was the GOP lock on this community because both Democrats spoke comfortably about faith and religion without sprouting a set of horns.

Clinton missed an opportunity for a gender moment when Meacham asked why she thinks a loving God allows innocent people to suffer. He added, to chuckles from the audience, "And we just have 30 seconds."

Clinton sort of shucked around and said, "I don't know, I can't wait to ask Him."

Had she said "I can't wait to ask Her," she'd have won a point.

She did, however, recover nicely saying that whatever the reason, when there's suffering, God's giving us a "call to action."

Obama's questions were more personal, but he's had more explaining to do.

He was asked about his controversial pastor, his childhood exposure to Islam in Indonesia and his statement about not wanting his preteen daughters "punished with a baby" if they become pregnant. He handled each, saying nothing new, adding he also (on the same day of the "punished" remark) said "children are a miracle."

Both candidates danced around their pro-choice abortion stances and when exactly life begins. Both nicely parried questions of whether God wants them to be president. Both repeated positions on Obama's "bitter" small-town, working-class crack, which he sought to soften by twice referring to supporter U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a working-class poster-boy.

What struck me is Democrats just taking part in such an event and McCain's absence and stated reticence about talking up his own faith - in contrast to the incumbent president - maybe creates a more level field in the fall in terms of Christian voters.

But the light I saw? I now think God's registered independent, or as Pennsylvania calls it, "unaffiliated." And I'm pretty sure He didn't change his registration to vote in next week's primary. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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