Pa. swing voters talk about what may sway them

Iraq situation could be biggest threat to Bush, focus group suggests

April 15, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Maryann Schriver took a gamble when she voted for George W. Bush four years ago.

The 50-year-old suburban Philadelphia homemaker, a lifelong Democrat, was worried that Bush didn't have the "gravitas" to be a good president. But she says that his surprisingly strong leadership, particularly after Sept. 11, has convinced her that she "didn't give him enough credit."

Still, she's not sure she'll vote for Bush again in November. At the heart of her concerns: the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which she favored initially but which now seems to her to be "spiraling out of control."

The increasing danger that Iraq poses to Bush's re-election was one of the clearest themes that emerged when Schriver and 10 other "swing" voters gathered the other night in Pennsylvania, a key campaign battleground. For two hours, these voters, who are not firmly committed to a candidate, shared their impressions and talked about how they'll make up their minds.

The focus-group session, conducted under the auspices of University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, exposed many of the cross-currents that Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, must navigate in the campaign.

None is more treacherous than the volatile situation in Iraq, which, recent polls suggest, could become the biggest threat to Bush's re-election. But Kerry does not appear to be positioned yet to take full advantage of Bush's vulnerability.

If the comments of the seven men and four women on Tuesday night were any indication, Americans are eager for more concrete answers than the ones Bush provided at a White House news conference that evening.

"I would like to see actual plans ... an exit plan for Iraq," said Schriver. "Are we just flying by the seat of our pants? I want specifics."

So does Jeanne Oberti, a 48-year-old office worker who "tentatively" plans to vote for Bush. "How are we going to get out of Iraq?" she wondered. "How much more money we're going to spend and how many more of our boys are going to get killed - those issues are troubling."

Oberti, who says the war hit "too close to home" when a close friend's nephew was wounded in Iraq, sees the president as a "man of character" who can make tough decisions. But she admits she was "surprised that he made such a quick decision" to invade Iraq "on what turned out to be incomplete and faulty information. ... It was very upsetting to me."

Michael Yost, a teacher, supports the war and doesn't blame Bush for such "appalling" images as the hanged corpses of dead Americans in Fallujah, which made a bigger impact on the 48-year-old than anything else that has happened this year. He will probably vote for Bush, but he said his decision could ultimately depend on whether the situation in Iraq improves after the scheduled handover of sovereignty at the end of June.

"This June 30th is a big date," he said. "The bottom line is, if I don't see it, between June 30th and the election, getting better in some way, that's something that might affect my decision."

Public opinion polls show that most voters still regard Bush as better able than Kerry to deal with the Iraq conflict. But several of the Pennsylvania voters said they would feel more confident with Kerry in charge.

"It wasn't his policy to get in there, so maybe he'd come in there with a fresh approach," said Massie Pacchione, a 61-year-old retiree.

Pacchione, who is leaning toward Kerry, said that, as a result of the Iraq war, "I'm getting very anti-Bush. ... I just see us in a mess that I don't see us getting out of. I don't know why we get into these foreign countries and think that they will welcome us."

And even Bush-supporter Vincent Vassalluzzo said he hopes the president will make the right decisions to turn things around in Iraq, "even if it means losing the election or the presidency." The 62-year-old construction-supply salesman said Democratic attacks on Bush had fractured the public's support for America's anti-terror campaign and emboldened international terrorists.

"It's giving them a reason to really act up now," he said, "and possibly influence the election, as they did in Spain."

When the moderator of the nonpartisan project, Peter Hart, a pollster who normally works for Democrats, asked if any of the group's members would be uncomfortable with Kerry as commander-in-chief, four hands shot up.

"I think he still has a lot to prove to me over the next few months," said Donna Urban, 39, a Bush-backer in 2000 who says the president should be worried about losing her vote this time.

Kerry "voted for the war. Now he's anti-war," she said. "He's just dancing around. He's so critical of Bush right now. I'd like to see what he'd do."

Bush's edge over Kerry on personal qualities was evident when the voters were asked to describe what a weekend with the first family at their Texas ranch might be like.

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