Undecideds say the issue is economy

Election 2004

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

DAYTON, Ohio - Worries about the Iraq war are gnawing at undecided voters in Ohio - and that might not be President Bush's biggest problem in this fiercely contested state, if a recent focus-group discussion here is any indication.

When a dozen on-the-fence Ohioans were asked whether they thought America's involvement in Iraq will ultimately be seen as a good thing, not a single person said "yes."

Instructed to put down on a notepad a couple of images from the past year that they expected would stick in their minds, eight came up with the same answer: the indelible scenes of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Several were bluntly critical of the president for rushing into war, including Cheryl Maggard, who voted for Bush in 2000.

"He was a little too froggy. He jumped too quick," said the 48-year-old from Lebanon, Ohio, who runs a small house-cleaning service. "I don't think he had a plan about how to get out. You don't get in a fight if you don't know where the exit is. That's the one thing I don't like about him."

The sometimes emotional comments about the war dominated Tuesday night's discussion in this Midwest community. But these independent voters said that when it comes to choosing a president, they care more about other, closer-to-home issues.

Their concerns - about jobs, health care costs and the direction of the economy - will determine how they'll vote, most said, and could well lead some to turn to Sen. John Kerry in November.

"You could see the challenges to the president here," said pollster Peter Hart, who moderated the two-hour session as part of an election year project by the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which is examining voter attitudes in key states. Though seven of the 12 undecideds backed Bush four years ago, only four are leaning his way at the moment.

"On the substance of the issue, people feel that nothing has gone right" in Iraq, although Bush wins "character points" for being tough-minded and decisive, Hart said.

Should the overseas situation improve, however, it might only increase the importance of domestic concerns, which aren't working to Bush's advantage with most of these undecided voters.

Unconvinced

Statistics pointing to a nationwide economic recovery haven't convinced the southern Ohio residents, who are unhappy about outsourcing and the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. They are also deeply skeptical of claims that the new jobs that have been created pay as well as the ones that were lost.

Aside from Iraq, all the talk "was about an economy that wasn't working," said Hart, who normally polls for Democrats. "In the end, it seems to me that [the election] comes back to the domestic side."

Not all of these swing voters said they hold Bush responsible for the economy, and most said they don't know enough yet about Kerry to make an informed choice. The Massachusetts senator plans to use his acceptance speech at this month's Democratic National Convention to begin persuading undecideds that he can be trusted with the presidency.

Here in closely divided Ohio, which has backed the winner in every presidential election since 1960 (no Republican has ever won the White House without it), fewer than one voter in six is still up for grabs, campaign officials say.

One of those who clearly is: Deborah Harris, a 53-year-old Dayton homemaker who voted for Bush last time but isn't ready to commit to him again.

Bush "is strong" and "has guts," but "he's gone the wrong way" in Iraq and the economy is "terrible." Kerry seems "real smart" and "thoughtful. ... But I'm not sure he's strong," Harris said. "He's new and fresh. We don't know him yet."

Daniel Goddard, a Gore voter in 2000, is leaning toward Bush. Primarily, he says, that's because wartime is a bad time to change leaders. The 43-year-old aerospace engineer at Dayton's Wright-Patterson Air Force base (site of early aviation experiments by the Wright brothers a century ago) said he needs to "get a better feeling" about Kerry's leadership ability if the Democrat is going to win his vote.

"A lot's been made of his leadership during the Vietnam War. But that was 30 years ago," said Goddard.

Approval for Edwards

Most seemed to think Kerry looks like a president. And his most important decision to date - his choice of a running mate - was clearly a hit here.

Theresa Aikens is inclined to vote for Bush again because he "has shown the ability to stand strong" in fighting terrorism "and I'm not sure John Kerry has that ability." But the "happily married" 33-year-old mother of two elementary school children admits that the addition of John Edwards "definitely swayed my opinion toward the Kerry ticket."

The North Carolina senator's working-class background and his loss of a teenage son in a fatal traffic accident "draws me to Edwards. That's important," she said.

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