WASHINGTON - In front of the dollar store in downtown Dunbar, W.Va., Shirley Irwin scowls when she says she's going to vote for George W. Bush again.
Irwin, a 64-year-old lifelong Democrat, says things have been "terrible" during the nearly four years that Bush has been in the White House. She's scared that he's "ruined" Medicare and would do the same to Social Security, the programs she depends on to get by.
Irwin believes Bush planned to invade Iraq from the moment he took office and says he bungled the war there.
But she can't bear to vote for Sen. John Kerry, whom she calls a dishonest waffler whose ideas are no better than Bush's.
"I don't like Bush either, but if I've got to choose between the two, count me for Bush," Irwin said. "With Kerry, one minute he would vote for something and the next minute he would change his mind. He talks too much about his war record, and he won't tell you what he really wants to do."
As the race for the presidency heats up in battleground states, Bush and Kerry are working to win over voters like Irwin.
Questioning the war in Iraq and anxious about job losses and soaring health care costs, such voters seem ripe for the picking by Kerry, who accuses Bush of mishandling the Iraq war and worsening economic problems through reckless tax cuts for the wealthy.
But in interviews last week with about 50 voters in Missouri and West Virginia - two crucial states in the presidential race - most seemed to be siding with Bush, who is arguing that he is the right leader for these dangerous times.
Many of these voters, interviewed in swing counties where Bush and Al Gore essentially fought to a draw in 2000, said they regard Kerry as an unprincipled flip-flopper and don't trust him to protect the country in a time of peril around the world. Some also said that they could not support Kerry because they disagree with his positions on cultural and social issues, such as his support for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control.
The interviews reinforced the findings in recent opinion polls that show Bush ahead of Kerry among likely voters nationally and in some battleground states, and holding a substantial lead in Missouri. They confirm survey findings that Bush is succeeding in tarnishing Kerry in some voters' minds, while bolstering his own image as the candidate better able to fight terrorism.
The numbers may reflect a temporary "bounce" that Bush received from the Republican convention. But they might also indicate a deeper trend that could spell trouble for Kerry on Election Day.
In 2000, Bush won Missouri by 4 percentage points and West Virginia by 6 points. Gore did well in traditionally Democratic strongholds in both states - the large cities of St. Louis and Kansas City in Missouri, and the coal counties of West Virginia. But Bush trounced Gore in largely rural counties where conservative values run deep and Bush's homespun charm caught fire.
It is in the remaining areas of those states - mostly a mix of suburbs and small towns - where Bush and Gore drew practically equal shares of votes. Kerry probably would have to fare as well or better in those areas if he hopes to win in Missouri or West Virginia. Judging from interviews, his chances are not looking good.
Kim Stokes, a 44-year-old Democrat and a geography specialist in Malden, Mo., said Bush is insensitive to the concerns of people like her - a single mother of three.
Bush is "just letting jobs go to other countries," Stokes said. "I don't think Bush truly understands how difficult some of us have it. He has always been a man of privilege."
Yet she won't be voting for Kerry. "He doesn't talk with conviction," she said. "Bush sounds so definite; Kerry sounds like he's trying to say what people want to hear."
Many of those interviewed expressed concerns about Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and said they consider the president an ally of the rich who is not committed to creating good jobs for working-class people. A majority of those interviewed said they voted for Bill Clinton twice, though many supported Bush in 2000.
While Bush and Kerry command a share of staunch backers, a larger proportion said they were shopping for an alternative to the president but were unmoved by his opponent. Kerry has failed to strike a chord with many of these swing voters, most of whom said the Massachusetts Democrat had not talked enough about issues that concern them, focusing too much on his record during the Vietnam War.
It was Kerry's style that bothered people the most, suggesting that the senator may be saddled with a negative public image similar to the one that plagued Gore in 2000, when many voters saw the vice president as boring and stiff.
Those interviewed last week said Kerry came across as rich and affected, and seemed to say merely what he thought people wanted to hear.