NEW YORK -- It was billed as the first joint appearance by the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees since their respective conventions.
Would tempers flare? Would someone stumble?
More than 10,000 people gathered Thursday on the campus of Columbia University, most on the main lawn outside the historical Low Library, a select few inside the Roone Arledge Auditorium to see and hear Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.
The atmosphere outside the auditorium was more like a throwback to the 1960s.
Thousands of students dressed in tie-dyed T-shirts and jeans flashing peace signs permeated the campus.
One was looking for 1960s icons, such as Abbie Hoffman or the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, to make an appearance.
The only sign that this was in fact a 21st-century student body was the occasional iPhone or BlackBerry that surfaced in the crowd.
By 8 p.m. the festivities got under way. The first public encounter of the two presidential nominees was at hand.
The two did meet earlier in the day at ground zero, but no public comments were made.
The kickoff to the two-day Service Nation summit was about to start.
The summit is designed to promote service and civic engagement as a strategy for solving problems and laying out a blueprint for moving America into a new era of service.
Thursday's presidential candidates forum was moderated by Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time magazine, and Judy Woodruff of PBS.
Unknown to many in the audience, the nominees would not be appearing jointly to answer the same questions, but would take to the stage separately.
In fact, McCain and Obama were onstage together for about 30 seconds, with Obama shaking hands and briefly hugging the Arizona senator, who then made a quick dash off camera.
McCain had won the coin toss and elected to appear first.
Obama, a 1983 Columbia grad, sat offstage for about 45 minutes.
While looking relaxed, McCain broke no new ground. He again challenged Obama to a town hall debate.
"First of all, this is a tough business," he said, adding that the campaign could have a different tone "if Senator Obama had accepted my request to appear at town halls all over America."
In fact, most journalists and bloggers were straining to find any new news, to the point where many among the 300-plus journalists began Web surfing, listening to iPods or napping.
The press center began to take on the look of a college frat house after a Saturday night beer bust. By the time Obama appeared, many in the press room had begun packing their bags.
Obama did say jokingly that "I've got a slight home-field advantage: This is my alma mater."
At about 20 minutes into his session the atmosphere grew restive, and the press room was less than half full.
Most reporters had come to realize that this would not be the night that either candidate could be thrown off message by the moderators.
Many believed that Stengel's questions were boring, and that Woodruff failed to probe either candidate.
Obama, not happy with the time position he got vis-a-vis McCain, forced the non-televised forum to go into overtime by about 10 minutes.
One surprise of the night was the unannounced appearance of Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden. What Biden was doing in the audience was unclear. He was not made available to the press.
The forum continues on Friday with addresses by first lady Laura Bush, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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