Early voters in Fla. focus on big issues

Election: Exit interviews indicate the war and the economy were the main influences on how ballots were cast.

Election 2004

October 24, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It might not look like much, but the East Lake Community Library stands at the epicenter of the 2004 election.

Just the other day, President Bush roared past the modest one-story building on his way to another Florida campaign rally. Vice President Dick Cheney has sped by, too. Twice.

More importantly, ordinary Floridians, in unexpectedly large numbers, are waiting in long lines at the library to cast early votes. Interviews with more than two dozen as they left the polling place late last week provided a window into the choices these voters wrestled with - which took some of them in a new direction.

Though not a scientific sample - and not predictive of election results - the interviews revealed a dynamic that is churning just beneath the surface of a campaign that has seemed permanently stuck on dead even.

Some of the voters explained the reasons why they reversed the choices they made four years ago. Others, shedding the apathy that kept them home before, said the stakes seem much higher now.

Many of these late-deciding, early-voting Floridians appeared to have made up their minds only after giving serious consideration to big issues, such as the war in Iraq or the economy. Sideshow squabbles - such as the president's National Guard records or what Teresa Heinz Kerry said about Laura Bush - seem to have been largely irrelevant.

That, at least, is what emerged from the conversations in a swing area of the Tampa Bay region, a hotbed of campaign competition where both sides hope they can sway enough votes to capture Florida's 27 electoral votes, and the presidency.

As Tampa goes ...

A Democratic pollster, David Beattie, has been saying for months that "whoever wins the Tampa media market," the state's largest, "will be president of the United States."

Here at the East Lake library, voters stand patiently under a searing sun to participate in the state's first-ever early balloting in a presidential election. Pinellas County officials brought in additional touch-screen voting machines, but hourlong waits are common.

One striking theme: a strong desire for change. Voters who backed Al Gore last time said they voted for Kerry. So did a number of Bush voters from 2000.

Indian-born Raman Patel spent most of his life as a grocery store owner in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. He sent his children, all professionals now, to the United States for schooling, and then immigrated in the 1980s. The registered Republican works part time at a Publix supermarket to make ends meet.

Four years ago, Bush impressed him as a "really good, young bright guy. He did well in Texas, and I decided to give him a chance." But after what he calls "a difficult decision," he switched to Kerry.

"I just voted for him to make a change and see how we'll do. I'm hoping that he'll do better," said Patel, who argues that Bush rushed to war in Iraq, distracting America from the hunt for those "really responsible for 9/11."

Helen Leahy, who has moved to Florida from Arizona since the last election, said that "all my life, I've voted for a Republican," including Bush in 2000. Raised as a Catholic and conservative on social issues, she disagrees with Kerry's promotion of stem-cell research and says the senator "comes across as a little stiff."

But she voted for him anyway because of the "horrible" federal deficit, the failure to improve the schools and the "immoral" war in Iraq. The special education teacher said she hopes Kerry will help the United States "regain some of the respect the country has lost" around the world.

"Time for a change," agreed Linda Gorken, who works part time for a clothing chain.

She cited "the war and the economy" as the main reasons she abandoned Bush. She said she thinks Kerry will do a better job on domestic issues but isn't "100 percent sold on him either" and fears that neither man can fix the "terrible situation" in Iraq.

No voters were encountered who supported Gore in 2000 and switched to Bush. But several nonvoters in the last election turned out for Bush this time.

"This was a tough one for me," said John Marakas, a pharmacist who praised the 15-day-early voting window because it makes it convenient for busy people to participate in the election.

He watched the debates, he said, and "heard Kerry say, `I have a plan. I have a plan. I have a plan.' But I didn't hear any plans. He didn't really give me anything to sway me from Bush."

"In a time of war, I don't think it's right to change the commander in chief," said Marakas.

`For selfish reasons'

Jason Kulvinskas, a sales representative in his 20s, said he is more involved in politics than he was when he skipped the last election. These days, he said, he often finds himself listening to conservative talk radio and watching Fox News.

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