Enquirer News Update   -   Updated 6:40 p.m.

Cincinnati focus group shows
swing away from Bush

By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer

focus group
Polllster Frank Luntz (right) talks with Derrick Blasingame of Avondale as Luntz prepares for his Cincinnati-area focus group of over 20 people at the Millenium Hotel in downtown Cincinnati.
(Ernest Coleman/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)
National pollster Frank I. Luntz sized up a group of Cincinnati-area swing voters Wednesday night with just three questions before declaring, "This room is George Bush's greatest nightmare."

Of the 20 voters he had lined up in front of national television cameras, 14 voted for President Bush in 2000. Only eight said they plan to vote for him again.

Though not a scientific poll, the focus group shows that Bush is going to have a battle holding on to his slim margin of victory - 3.6 percentage points - in Ohio four years ago.

"These are quintessential swing voters. They have swung away from Bush, but they've not yet decided - as of tonight - whether John Kerry deserves their vote."

Luntz, an MSNBC pollster who has worked for many Republican clients, was in Cincinnati Wednesday and today to gauge Ohio voters' reaction to the Democratic National Convention. The focus group sessions were aired nationally on the cable news channel.

Why Cincinnati? After all, it's not in one of those bellwether counties that pollsters like to use as a barometer of Ohio, whose 20 electoral votes are considered critical to Bush's re-election.

But it is a good measure of Bush's support in an area of the state he has to win in order to counter the Democratic votes in the industrial cities of Cleveland, Akron, Toledo and Youngstown.

"This region is the No. 1 region," Luntz said. "Not the city, but the suburbs. Because the suburbs voted for Bush in 2000, and it's where the biggest drop has come. I want to know exactly what is turning these people on to John Kerry and off to George Bush."

Luntz gave the 20 Cincinnati voters hand-held dials to register their relative pleasure - or displeasure - with John Edwards' message as he accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president Wednesday. He'll do the same tonight for Sen. John Kerry's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president.

Edwards' approval spiked - among Republicans and Democrats alike - when he mentioned the word "outsourcing."

"We're going to get rid of tax cuts for companies who are outsourcing your jobs, and instead we're going to give tax breaks to American companies that are keeping jobs right here in America," Edwards said.

"I'm already seeing it with contractors. What's next?" said Sean Kramer, 35, of Norwood, who usually leans Republican. "They don't even have call centers in the United States."

Other high points for Edwards came as he talked about John Kerry's war record, veterans, and the 2001 terrorist attacks.

But that support took a dive when the swing voters saw Edwards try to turn the issue into a political advantage: "When we're in office, it won't take three years to get the reforms in our intelligence that are necessary to keep the American people safe."

"He's blaming someone," said Lance Olberding, 34, of Mason. "He didn't say whether he's going to make us any safer, because he can't say that. No one can."

Even before Edwards took the stage, his importance to the ticket became clear. Even some who preferred Bush said they would choose Edwards if they could split their vote.

Asked to give a word or phrase to describe the first-term North Carolina senator, the Cincinnati voters said he was "young," "a slick lawyer," "charming," "energetic" and "a question mark."

Those youthful assets turned to a liability as Edwards spoke.

Daniel H. Kelly, 43, of Greenhills, wondered whether Edwards, 51, could really remember the Jim Crow south as vividly as he suggested. "It became a credibility issue for me," he said.

"He didn't seem serious enough for the times," said Heather Ratliff of Oxford, a college student.

"He didn't look old enough to know what he was talking about," said Gary A. Hockett, 60, of Anderson Township.

Still, Vice President Dick Cheney's negatives seemed to be slightly higher: "deceptive," "experienced," "influential," "top-notch" and "an egomaniac." And few of Luntz's swing voters said the vice presidential pick would have much influence on their vote.

Luntz, considered a focus group guru in Washington, has done extensive work for Republican candidates across the country and is considered a pioneer in cutting-edge focus-group techniques.

He conducted similar focus groups here during the 2000 campaign, using a dial group to gauge reaction to a Bush-Gore debate.

It was from that group of 36 voters - Democrats, Republicans and independents - that Luntz declared Bush the winner of the debate, helping set the conventional wisdom that Bush "clearly outperformed what they were expecting."

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com