From CBS News' Jamie Farnsworth:
(NEW YORK) - Despite the fact she's in Alaska, Sarah Palin is still driving conversation. At a forum on service at Columbia University tonight, which both John McCain and Barack Obama attended separately, McCain was asked to respond to Palin's criticism of Obama's community organizing days.
"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities," Palin said in her address to the Republican Convention last week. The line was delivered with a sly smile and received with applause at the convention. It has drawn criticism by Democrats who blame the Republicans for belittling community service while praising military service.
Tonight, McCain said, "Look, Governor Palin was responding to the criticism of her inexperience and her job as a mayor in a small town. Of course I respect community organizers."
He went on to defend Palin's time as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, with a population of under 10,000.
"I think a small-town mayor has very great responsibilities," he said. "I admire mayors. Listen, mayors have the toughest job, I think, in America."
Later, when Obama was asked a similar question, he also heaped praise on the nation's mayors.
"We had an awful lot of small-town mayors at the Democratic convention, I assure you," Obama said. "The mayors have some of the toughest jobs in the country because that's where the rubber hits the road. We yikety yak in the Senate. They actually have to fill potholes and trim trees and make sure the garbage is taken away."
© 2008 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.