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Obama, McCain Set Aside Politics, Call on Americans for Public Service

U.S. presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama set aside politics on Thursday as they honored the memory of those killed seven years ago in terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The sharp rhetoric that has marked much of this year's campaign was absent as the two senators spoke at a forum on public service at one of the country's top universities. The nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties spoke separately, but each man said he believes in expanding volunteer and service opportunities for all Americans. Victoria Cavaliere reports from VOA's New York Bureau.

Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican, and his Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, vowed to put aside partisan politics Thursday to honor the nearly 3,000 victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

It was the first time the two men appeared together since becoming their parties' presidential nominees. They made a solemn visit to "ground zero," where New York's World Trade Center skyscrapers once stood, near Wall Street, then traveled to Columbia University (in another part of Manhattan) for the public-service forum.

An overflow crowd of thousands of people, most of them students, watched the candidates on a large outdoor screen, and the forum also was broadcast nationwide.

The senators met briefly to shake hands, but they otherwise spoke separately, answering a series of questions from the moderators, two respected journalists. The theme of the evening was promoting public service and civic engagement among Americans, and both senators said that form of service should be a fundamental value of U.S. society.

McCain, who spoke first, said he believes Americans are eager to perform public service both at home and abroad.

"I believe Americans are ready to now to be inspired. They are ready to go," McCain said. "They understand the challenges that we have in this world. They see the Russian invasion of a little country called Georgia. They see the problems in Afghanistan growing larger, they see a whole lot of things happening in the world that is going to require us to serve, and that opportunity has to be provided for them."

McCain said he supports "careful" expansion of government-sponsored organizations like the Peace Corps, which places volunteers in developing countries, as well as a similar domestic-service program known as AmeriCorps. The Republican candidate said he hopes to see the greatest expansion of service in private and faith-based volunteer initiatives, what he called "the grass roots" of service.

Obama told the crowd he believes Americans are "yearning" for a greater sense of civic responsibility and mutual cooperation. Public service should start early in life, the Democratic candidate said, pledging that as president he would encourage young people to join the military or pursue opportunities with programs like Teach for America or AmeriCorps. Obama said the domestic version of the Peace Corps should be dramatically expanded, from 75,000 to 250,000 positions.

"I believe firmly that government should expand the avenues of opportunity," Obama said. "I want to create an energy corps, a clean energy corps that can mobilize individual citizens to help create greater energy efficiency in our country. I want to mobilize seniors to get involved with their schools or local hospitals and health clinics. There's going to be a whole range of ways to do it. Some of it is going to cost money, but mostly it requires government providing these opportunities and avenues."

The forum was hosted by ServiceNation, an umbrella group of volunteer organizations seeking to promote civic engagement and volunteer work among U.S. college students.