Jewish World Review July 20, 2004 / 2 Menachem-Av, 5764

Carl P. Leubsdorf

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Neither party getting notable edge with swing voters | DAYTON, Ohio — A generation ago, analysts Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon portrayed a housewife in this southwestern Ohio city as the prototypical swing voter.

In the 2004 election, a "totally undecided" Dayton housewife named Deborah Harris could fit the same role.

"I feel George Bush is strong, brave and has guts, but I think he went the wrong way (on Iraq)," Harris, 53, said during a focus group of "swing" voters Tuesday night. "John Kerry, I think, is really smart and more thoughtful and not as fast to act, but I'm not sure he's strong."

The former teacher and mother of two, who voted in 2000 for Bush, was one of three who said they were undecided. The other nine split almost evenly to Bush and Kerry, but most said they could change.

"These are the people that they're going to end up fighting for," said pollster Peter Hart, a Democrat who conducted the focus group as part of a yearlong nonpartisan project sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in this key Middle West state, without which no Republican has ever won. He said their negative attitudes on both the economy and the war in Iraq illustrated "the challenge to the president here."

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Behind their indecision and negativism, the participants, who split 7-5 for Bush in 2000, showed some attitudes at odds with conventional wisdom, many of them spelling potential problems for Bush.

— Their main concerns were the economy and jobs, rather than the war in Iraq and terrorism. Their comments more often cited concerns about job losses and outsourcing stressed by Kerry than the recently improved economic statistics touted by Bush.

"There's a question whether it's coming back strong or not," said Bill Andrews, 50, a 2000 Bush voter now undecided who lost his sales job two weeks ago. Jody Blair, 33, a former teacher, cited concern about outsourcing of jobs abroad but said she leans to Bush because "I think he does have guts."

— Even some potential Bush supporters denounced his handling of the war and favored early U.S. withdrawal.

"He was a little bit froggy, he jumped (into the war) too quick," said Cheryl Maggard, 48, a retired school bus driver who voted for Bush last time and leans to him now. "I don't think he has a plan on how to get out. You don't get in a fight if you don't know where the exit is." But she added, "I still feel safer with Bush making the decision than I do with Kerry."

— None described Kerry as "liberal," and all said he was qualified, a crucial breakthrough for a challenger. But even some likely backers described him as "stiff," "uptight" and "aloof."

Dana Bales, 54, a businessman who voted for Bush in 2000, said that, while Bush was "a better speaker," the president "has lost his credibility with me so I'd be more likely to go with Kerry."

— Even backers of Bush's position on social issues like abortion criticized his current stress on banning gay marriage.

"There have been 27 amendments to the Constitution, and this one doesn't seem to rise to that level," said Daniel Goddard, 43, an aerospace engineer and 2000 Gore voter who leans to Bush because wartime "may not be the best time to change leaders." He likened it to the 20th-century effort to ban alcoholic beverages.

— Sen. John Edwards drew almost unanimous praise, and some said his choice for vice president bolstered their view of Kerry.

"It showed he has confidence," Bales said. Theresa Aikens, 33, a homemaker who leans to Bush, said his youth and charisma "definitely swayed my opinion towards the Kerry ticket." None cited Edwards' prior career as a trial lawyer.

— Criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney was mild. Even some leaning against Bush called Cheney "experienced" and "intelligent."

— There was little sign television ads have affected attitudes. Only a couple mentioned the Vietnam service cited in Kerry ads or Bush charges that he is a "flip-flopper."

John Franz, 53, a supervisor at a blood center who leans to Kerry, cited recent ads for both candidates. "Kerry talked about issues," he said. "Bush's advertisement talked about Kerry. I hate that."

And a showing of campaign pitches by both men produced as much scorn as approval. "Both of them were canned speeches based on what focus groups like this one say," Bales said.

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Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Comment by clicking here.


07/12/04: Can Edwards boost Kerry like LBJ helped JFK in 1960?
06/28/04: Reagan set the pattern for debates that Bush should follow
05/28/04: Ironically, Prez relied on seasoned advisers for gravitas — and now he's being made the scapegoat for their screw-ups
05/04/04: Gramm's former student Hensarling picks up the cause
03/04/04: No one's whistling ‘Dixie’
03/01/04: Voting for veep?
09/05/03: As debates begin, Democrats likely to shuffle positions
08/29/03: Will 2008 see a Clinton-Hutchison presidential contest?
08/01/03: Dems risk loss if they heed special interests
07/18/03: Prez not his father's son

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