Thursday, July 15, 2004

Dayton focus group proves tough sell for both parties



By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer

CENTERVILLE, Ohio - Toward the end of a two-hour focus group of swing voters, Dana Bales said both major presidential candidates were giving "canned speeches based on what focus groups like this one are saying they want to hear."

Bales, 54, is a swing voter in a swing state, and both campaigns - and the national media - all want to know what he thinks of their messages on the economy, the war in Iraq.

"Bush is definitely a better speaker. I think he comes across better," said Bales, who voted for Bush in 2000. "But after four years, Bush has lost his credibility with me."

Bales is a vote that Bush can't afford to lose, said pollster Peter D. Hart, who put him and 11 other Dayton-area swing voters under a microscope this week for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The focus group session will be televised on C-SPAN beginning today.

Of the two candidates, Bush has a better personal linkage with Ohio's swing voters, Hart said. "When they talk about George Bush the man, he's someone they can relate to and like," said Hart, whose clients are usually Democrats. "But for George Bush the president, this has to be a distressing group of people. Because on the substance, these voters feel nothing has gone right with the economy or in the world."

Why come to Dayton?

The "Dayton housewife" set the standard for the average middle-American voter. Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, in their 1970 book The Real Majority, argued that candidates who spoke to her issues win presidential elections.

But in 2004, candidates looking for Dayton housewives are finding a complicated set of opinions.

They want out of Iraq - but not overnight. They want a change in the economy - but don't think Sen. John F. Kerry, has presented a plan that would make much of a difference.

One undecided voter, 53-year-old homemaker and retired middle school art teacher Deborah Harris of Dayton, said she also voted for Bush in 2000.

"I think George Bush is strong, brave and has a gut, but he went in the wrong direction," she said. Kerry is "very smart, more thoughtful and less quick to act, but I don't think he's as strong.... Maybe there's a difference between strength and false bravado."

Cheryl Maggard, 48, a house cleaner from Lebanon, said Bush was "froggy." "He jumped too quick," she said. "You don't get into a fight if you don't know where the exit is."

By and large, these swing voters are a gloomy bunch. Asked to describe the mood of the country, they use words like "unsettled," "upheaval" and "falling apart."

"Things start looking good, and then they start to teeter-totter back down," said Jody Blair, 33, a Centerville housewife, mom, puppeteer and former teacher.

But for Kerry to capitalize on those attitudes, he's going to have to shed his aloof image and show that he can be strong and decisive in a crisis, Hart said.

"Stiff" and "schmaltzy" were the words used to describe Kerry.

"Kerry talks about international help," said Bales. "He doesn't have an Iraq exit plan either. If he does, we haven't heard what it is."

And from William Pant, 36, a graphic designer from Miamisburg: "Kerry looks good on paper. He sounds good. But they all sound good when they're trying to get your vote."

One of the few things these 12 voters agreed on is that they like Kerry's running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, whom they described as youthful and dynamic.

And they all agreed third-party candidate Ralph Nader - "a fossil" and "a hippie" - is not an option.

Issues these swing voters want to hear more about: jobs, education and taxes.

Subjects they've heard far too much about already: the environment and gay marriage.

It's not that these swing voters favor gay marriage. Like most Ohioans, they're generally conservative on social issues.

But the economic and foreign policy issues are the most pressing.

"If I saw where the economy was improving, and I saw that we had a good exit strategy for Iraq - which is why I'm leaning toward Kerry - the social issues could bring me back to Bush," Bales said.

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com




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