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So these voters have some real issues

Of all stripes politically, our roundtable of dutiful voters believe they must turn out even as they question the ballot box's power.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published October 22, 2006


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You'd think spending a few hours with dozens of well-informed, patriotic and dutiful Florida voters would be inspiring.

Try thoroughly depressing.

"I have absolutely no faith in anyone I've voted for," said Robert Oblinger, a Republican retired dentist who moved to Tampa Bay 10 years ago. "The last two major elections I voted against someone, not for someone."

Listening to the separate focus groups of Democrats, Republicans and independents convened by the St. Petersburg Times, it's clear something is stirring that's much deeper than the usual antipolitician sentiment. A lot of these voters see the Florida they've long cherished slipping away while their leaders and would-be leaders do nothing but snipe and hurl banal campaign slogans.

Lifelong Pinellas resident Bonnie Chambers, a 61-year-old independent voter, ticked off her concerns one by one: Skyrocketing insurance. Soaring housing prices. Taxes rising. Runaway growth robbing her community of its character and quality of life.

"Something is wrong, something's definitely wrong," she said somberly. "It's paradise, but they're taking it away. ... It's criminal."

Judith Thomas, a 55-year-old Democratic school bus driver trainer, is looking at retiring in a few years. She fears she'll have no choice but to leave Florida because on a fixed income she can't afford the rising costs of insurance and taxes.

And she's sick of all the campaign ads from politicians promising they'll deal with rising insurance and taxes.

"I'll be so glad when Nov. 7 is over. Every time you turn the TV on it's about property taxes and insurance. We know they're not going to get in there and work a miracle," Thomas said, as others around the room nodded in agreement. "I actually feel sorry for whoever's going to get in there to try to straighten it out, because they're not going to straighten it out overnight. And then we're all going to get mad because we voted for them and they got in there and didn't do what they said they're going to do."

With all the talk of red America and blue America, at least we found plenty of bipartisan common ground. Of the Republicans, Democrats and independents gathered at the Times: Voters of all stripes are fed up with insurance costs and the Iraq war. They don't see Florida schools improving and they're worried about affording health care and the middle class getting squeezed out of Florida.

They're generally frustrated, anxious and in many cases downright angry about where their state and country are heading.

"It's just a lack of coherent vision in domestic policy, foreign policy for the future. It seems like everything's based toward the next election," lamented 32-year-old Adam Steadman, an independent voter. "It's bickering back and forth. Who's going to regain control of Congress seems to be the biggest issue - and not where are we going to be 10 years from now, where are we going to be 20 years from now?"

Almost no one on the campaign trail today or on the political horizon inspires these voters. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama came up a couple times among Democrats and independents as someone to be excited about down the line, and Republicans mentioned John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

Even popular outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush failed to engender much enthusiasm from the voters we met. Larry Tarantino, who recently switched from no party affiliation to Democrat, at least gave Bush strong marks for vision.

"He came in with visions of what he wanted to change. It doesn't mean I necessarily agree with what he's changed them to, but at least he had a plan," said Tarantino, who's supporting Democrat Jim Davis for governor because he has "more substance" compared with Republican Charlie Crist's "give us everything we want approach."

Among the nine Democrats, all but one planned to vote for gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis retiree Leonard Bauduin's leaning toward Crist, because, unlike Davis, Crist's campaign had responded to questions he e-mailed. But no Democrat had any enthusiasm for the Tampa congressman and nobody thought he had a chance of winning. They were unanimous in thinking Hillary Clinton would be a lousy presidential candidate.

The Republicans were lukewarm about Republican gubernatorial candidate Crist too, though nobody doubted he'll be the next governor.

Republican St. Petersburg lawyer Jim Thompson, like most of the voters, saw no one offering real solutions to Florida's property insurance crisis.

"I was canceled. Got no way of knowing where I'm going to get my insurance next, and yet we had no claims this year, no hurricanes this year, and neither Crist nor his opponent have any viable proposals," Thompson said. "We're at the end of the line here if we don't do something pretty quick. Doctors are leaving and people are leaving, and it's time to stop it."

The Sunshine State has virtually zero unemployment, leads the country in job growth and still attracts more than 1,100 transplants a day eager for a slice of paradise. But it seems voters are more uneasy than they've been in ages.

It's painfully clear from these focus groups that there are a lot of burning issues, a lot to talk about as we head into the final weeks of this campaign. Voters are hungry for substance and sincerity that they're not seeing amid the tens of millions of dollars of campaign ads. It's a good bet we'll see weak turnout in November, given the deep cynicism out there.

U.S. Senate and gubernatorial debates will be televised on public TV on Monday and Tuesday nights. Maybe, just maybe, in the next couple weeks some Florida candidates can give voters a reason to be encouraged about their leaders.

After all, even among our discouraged focus groups we found at least a few signs of idealism left.

"Margaret Mead once said that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has," independent voter Julia Brazier said. "I believe in that. So I'm going to continue to vote. The only thing I can do is vote."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 24, 2006, 09:48:42]


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