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Sitting on the fence

Undecided voters skeptical of Bush, but not sold on Kerry

Posted: Wednesday, September 01, 2004

NEW YORK David Tayman is a registered Republican who thinks the economy is turning around, a defense industry worker who considers Democrat John Kerry to be ''flippy-floppy.'' Sounds like a vote for President Bush.

But the 31-year-old LaPlata, Md., resident is angry about the war in Iraq, and finds the Republican incumbent to be more conservative than compassionate. ''So I'm undecided,'' Tayman said Monday night as he turned on his television in search of the GOP convention. ''What am I going to do?''

Wouldn't Bush and Kerry like to know? Whether fence-sitters like Tayman break for the Democrat in a thirst for change, stick with Bush and the comfort of status quo or stay home Election Day out of disgust, so-called ''persuadable voters'' may well determine the election. Conventional wisdom gives Kerry the edge among these wavering voters, but interviews with dozens of them suggest the incumbent has advantages, too.

Undecided voters account for just 4 to 5 percent of the electorate, according to most polls, though the universe of persuadable voters ranges up to 20 percent when pollsters include people who say they lean toward one candidate and still might vote for another. By any measure, the number of voters still open to persuasion is smaller than normal.

AP-Ipsos polling shows that persuadable voters are more disappointed than others with Bush's job performance. Their negative views track almost every issue, from Bush's handling of the war in Iraq to his foreign policies, the economy and domestic initiatives. Nearly seven in 10 of them believe the country is headed on the wrong track.

They're eager for a new direction, even in a time of war, if Kerry can convince them that it's safe to change.

Bush may not have been a perfect leader, said John Barker, 73, standing outside a barber shop in Tampa, Fla., ''but my question is whether anybody could have done a better job under the circumstances.'' Likewise, Karen Langley, 50, of Loveland, Colo., said ''there are a few things Bush could have done differently,'' but she doesn't think much of Kerry. ''What's he done to make him ready?'' she said.

Kerry's allies, pointing to past elections, say half of undecided people usually end up never voting but, of those who do, two-thirds usually break in favor the challenger.

Republicans say the old rules won't apply in the first presidential election since the Sept. 11 attacks, with voters feeling the threat of another terrorist strike.

''The axioms we used to live by are now dead, they perished with those poor people on Sept. 11,'' said Republican strategist Ron Kaufman. ''In the final analysis, these voters will choose the man they think can keep the nation safe, a steady, credible man. And that certainly won't lead them to choose John Kerry.''

That's the hope for Bush, who long ago made the war on terrorism the centerpiece of his re-election bid. He has played up his post-Sept. 11 leadership Bush calls himself a ''war president'' while questioning Kerry's credibility. On the first of four convention nights, Republicans belittled the Democrat as a waffling opportunist unworthy of the White House.

The message is getting through to voters such as Dennis Seavey, 46, of Rindge, N.H. ''As far as Kerry stepping up into a freaky foreign policy situation right now, I'm not sure he'd be quite ready,'' the furniture maker said.

But he's not sold on Bush, either, because of Iraq. ''The justification for that war was 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction, but Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and there are no weapons,'' he said as the Republican convention echoed from a television in the background.

Disappointed with his choices, Seavey said he may not vote. ''I'm not big on either one of them and their negative tactics,'' he said.

Republicans privately predict that the bitterly fought campaign may turn off more voters than usual and make the election a battle of the bases a matter of finding core supporters, and persuading them to vote. That may explain why Bush has courted conservatives since the first day of his presidency.

But the president's advisers say he can win a healthy share of persuadable voters if the focus in on personal traits such as steadiness and strength. According to AP-Ipsos polling, persuadable voters hold the president, as a person, in relatively high regard even as they object to his policies.

As for Tayman, the Maryland Republican, he has told at least one pollster that he's leaning toward Kerry. He initially stuck to that view Monday night, citing the war and ''the fact that while the country is headed in the right direction, it's taken too long to get there.''

Minutes later, he raised doubts about the Democrat, and wondered whether it's wise to oust a commander in chief amid war.

''I might walk in voting for Kerry and, at the last minute, choke on the idea of change,'' he said. ''I'm 50-50 on this race. Who knows what I'll do?''

Ron Fournier has covered the White House and national politics since 1993.



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