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The Presidential Campaign

Panelists wait for sign to follow gut

Undecided voters gathered by the Times explain why they're just not sure.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published October 20, 2004

The Times' panel, selected by phoning registered voters. From left: Alice Billhimer of Gulfport; David Hoover, Elizabeth Faris, Courtney Hall and Robin Hardison of St. Petersburg; and Jonathan Browy and Tina Austin of Tampa.
ELECTION 2004 COVERAGE IN TODAY'S TIMES
[Times photo: Willie Allen Jr.]
President Bush speaks at Sims Park in New Port Richey on Tuesday morning. He earlier had visited St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Park.

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Panelists wait for sign to follow gut
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ST. PETERSBURG - Gulfport retiree Alice Billhimer wants to know why the planning for the war in Iraq seems to have been so shoddy.

Tampa banker Jonathan Browy questions what John Kerry has accomplished over 20 years in the U.S. Senate.

St. Petersburg guidance counselor Elizabeth Faris just wishes the candidates would clearly spell out realistic agendas.

"Tell both sides to cut the garbage, and stop tearing each other down," agreed Robin Hardison of St. Petersburg. "Put it on the table: What are you going to do and how are you going to get there?"

These are the voices of some of the most coveted and important people in America: undecided voters in the Tampa Bay area.

Seven residents of the biggest battleground region in the biggest battleground state came to the St. Petersburg Times Monday night to explain what's on their minds two weeks from Election Day.

Mostly they are well-informed, thoughtful and skeptical but not cynical. Three lean toward re-electing Bush and three toward John Kerry, including two who voted for Bush in 2000.

But none are quite ready to pull the trigger. They're looking for some final reassurance.

"I'm leaning toward Kerry, but I'm still looking for that something to make me feel comfortable about him. I did get comfortable voting for Bush in 2000, and it probably happened in the last couple weeks as well," said Browy, 39.

"Some of the things I liked about Bush the first time - that surety of purpose - I don't think has worked that well for him," Browy said. "I see a guy who hasn't admitted to any mistakes really. And I don't think admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness.

"But the thing that keeps me undecided, however, is the fact that I haven't seen Sen. Kerry do that much for this country."

In a battleground state that has led the nation in job growth over the last year, few of them have major concerns about the economy. Iraq and the war on terror are the overriding issues - and provide little clarity to most of these fence-sitters. Three of them think invading Iraq was the right thing to do; four don't.

"For a lot of people it was easy to vote for Clinton, and it was easy to vote for him again. It was easy to vote for Bush. This is not so clear-cut. It's not just about your values and what you believe in, whether it's gun control or education, or tax money and this and that. It's war," said Faris, 24, who leans Democratic but voted for Bush in 2000 because Al Gore seemed too egotistical.

"And you do have to start thinking, is it right to start pulling people out, is it right to keep them in? If he started the job, should he finish the job? ... A lot of the things Kerry stands for would apply to me, but then there's the war. I think that's a huge part of people being undecided."

Billhimer, 75, is a lifelong "liberal Republican" who moved from Maryland a year ago. Today, almost everyone she talks to adamantly opposes Bush. She's leaning toward the incumbent but is deeply troubled about much of what she sees and hears about Bush.

She thinks invading Iraq probably made sense, but sees the "mess" as badly mismanaged.

"I'm wondering if Kerry could get us out of Iraq sensibly, reasonably and without losing as much face as Bush, who isn't going to get us out of there," she said.

"I don't care about losing face," said David Hoover, an all-but-sure Kerry supporter who also touted the Massachusetts senator's environmental record. "We should swallow some of our pride and just get out of there. And I think we stand a better chance of getting out of there with Kerry."

The Times selected the panel after phoning registered voters and asking if they had made up their minds and were sure they would vote. Each participant received a $60 stipend.

Though all declared themselves undecided, two acknowledged Monday that they were unlikely to move from their preferred candidate. Hoover appeared solidly with Kerry, and Courtney Hall, a 29-year-old telemarketer, appeared solid for Bush.

The most clearly undecided was Hardison, 40, who has been too preoccupied by a newborn baby and health problems to pay much attention to the race. Her top priority would be expanding access to health care, but she was unaware of what the candidates intended to do about that.

"I just don't really like either one of them," she said. "I think Bush is a warmonger, and I don't think Kerry is straight up front. I may write my name in."

Tina Austin, a contract employee without benefits for the U.S. Postal Service, is all but set to vote for Bush again, but she keeps hearing talk about postal jobs potentially being privatized. She thinks overthrowing Saddam Hussein was long overdue and that Kerry is indecisive. But the jobs issue troubles her in a personal way.

"I'd like to hear from Bush what he'll do on this jobs thing with outsourcing and privatizing. ... That's my biggest concern, because that could put my job in jeopardy."

Four of the seven watched at least some of the presidential debates. The televised encounters did nothing to help most of them reach a conclusion. All they saw were charges and countercharges thrown back and forth.

If the candidates hope to win over these elusive voters with a continuing barrage of TV ads, this group suggests the money will be wasted.

They say they're mostly ignoring the TV spots, and few repeated the standard campaign attack mantras: Kerry's a flip-flopper, for instance, or that Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net job loss.

They were unanimous in dismissing the significance of either Kerry's or Bush's Vietnam records, and over and over again complained about the campaigns failing to adequately explain their plans.

"That's the problem with the election, and not knowing who to believe," Faris said. "Kerry says everybody in America will have health (insurance) or whatever it is. Is that really feasible? I don't know. Bush says, for everybody in America, "no child left behind.' Is that really feasible? No, it's not, but people put their standards so high that's why they get votes."

For the next two weeks, these voters say they will be talking to friends, searching the Internet, praying and waiting for some confirmation of their gut leanings.

"The real truth seems to be getting lost somewhere along the lines. I wish to heck it was over," Billhimer said. "Six months ago I said I would vote for the first guy to take their ads off the TV. But they kept coming and coming and coming."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 20, 2004, 00:17:24]

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