No clear favorite for voters in Erie

ERIE, PA. — ERIE, Pa. - Brian Conroe says he might vote for President Bush this fall. He sounds about as enthusiastic to do that as he would be to shovel the snow piling up on the sidewalk.

A Republican, Conroe voted for Bush in 2000 but now has major complaints. For one, he contends, the United States had no business invading Iraq, an action he fears stoked anti-American disgust around the world.


"The war in Iraq wasn't our fight - and now we've stepped on a lot of toes," he says. A 24-year-old factory machinist, Conroe says he would vote for Bush only by default, if no Democrat impresses him.

"He's still young for a president," he says. "Maybe he could learn from his mistakes."


As Bush puts the final touches on the State of the Union address he will deliver tomorrow and Democrats battle in Iowa for the right to oppose him, Conroe's tepid assessment of the president's first three years in office was typical among more than two dozen people interviewed last week in and around Erie, a snow-socked fishing and manufacturing port in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania.

Among Republicans, Democrats and independents, a nearly unanimous opinion emerged: Bush has been a reasonably able leader. I might vote for him. But I'm really undecided.

In a moderate swing state that Bush narrowly lost in 2000, and which could help determine who wins the White House this fall, the lukewarm sentiment toward the president seems striking at a time when he appears to be riding high.

Bush is presiding over an economy that is steaming back from recession, and he recently celebrated the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He has cast himself as a bulwark against terrorism, a hot topic in a Great Lakes port city that is close to Canada and is the hometown of Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who represented the area in Congress and is now Bush's secretary of homeland security.

All those topics are expected to be mentioned prominently in Bush's State of the Union speech, which is certain to be carefully calculated with the election in mind.

At Bertrand's, a French cafe downtown, Anne Siegel, a part-time waitress and registered independent, says she voted for Bush in 2000 but isn't so sure this time. Like Conroe, she complains that the president did not think through his decision to go to war in Iraq and invaded that country before the world had a chance to use other means to force Hussein from power.

After all the American losses in lives and money, Siegel says, she feels no safer from a terrorist attack today than she did immediately after Sept. 11, 2001.

"There are ways to fight back other than taking up guns and killing each other," Siegel says, "Bush did not look at war as a last resort. It was, to him, just the answer. He just acted out of emotion.


"I still like him," she adds. "But I am going to look at everyone else's views."

A battleground state

Erie, which Al Gore carried by 11,000 votes in 2000, and its suburbs are no perfect barometer of the national mood. But they are home to scores of swing voters - Democrats, for example, who voted for Bush because they agreed with his opposition to abortion, and Republicans who backed Gore because they feared that Bush's policies could threaten the environment.

Some Democrats have acknowledged that Hussein's capture and the recent upswing in the economy have made it harder to convince voters it's time for a change in the White House. But they might have reason for encouragement in a place like Erie, where sentiments suggest they might be able to capitalize on a less-than-exuberant assessment of Bush to attract swing voters in competitive states. For years they gave easy majorities to the Republican Ridge.

Pennsylvania is one of several states, including Florida, Ohio and Michigan, that tend to be crucial in presidential politics, with their unpredictable voters and a trove of electoral votes. Bush's political aides have made Pennsylvania a target to help shore up his re-election. Not counting his short trips to the Washington suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, and vacations at his Texas ranch, the president has visited Pennsylvania more often than any other state.

In his speech tomorrow, Bush will lay out goals for this year - and, he hopes, beyond - and argue that his war on terrorism has made America more secure than it was two years ago.


Some residents worry that the opposite is the case, fearing that Bush's aggressive tactics have incited terrorists who could target Erie, where Ridge grew up and the airport is named after him.

"I think we may have poked a bear with a stick," Jim Stewart, a Republican, said of Bush's foreign policy. Stewart, who leads a children's maritime education program on the shore of Lake Erie, spoke to a reporter inside a cold, cavernous boat storage facility.

Stewart, 43, argued that the president has jumped erratically from one foreign policy priority to another, showing impatience and achieving no real success.

"We went to Afghanistan to fight terrorists - two weeks later, we're talking about going to Iraq, and now Bush is talking about going to Mars?" Stewart said, referring to Bush's new goal of establishing a base on the moon and eventually sending astronauts to Mars.

"He failed to get Osama bin Laden, then he failed to take any real threat away in Iraq," Stewart said. In shifting from one venture to another, he said, "Bush never fixes any of the problems."

Poll shows tight race


Analysts note that incumbent presidents typically enjoy more support when voters believe the nation is headed in the right direction and less when they see the country going in the wrong direction. In an opinion poll released last week by the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of respondents said they were "satisfied with the way things are going in the country today," while 48 percent said they were dissatisfied.

Forty-three percent said they would like to see Bush re-elected, and 43 percent said they would prefer a Democrat.

Erie is a city of blue-collar people who brave harsh winters and lake-effect snow that seldom lets up this time of year. The local economy has depended on manufacturing and, as in many U.S. cities, is struggling to diversify as the nation's manufacturing base has shrunk.

Many voters here say they have yet to feel an economic rebound, a fact that could, in part, explain a lack of enthusiasm about the president.

Robert Heck, a 34-year-old independent voter and college graduate, said he had been unemployed for several months and just took a job selling cell phones in a mall. But he does not know how long he will be able to keep it.

Heck said the tax cuts Bush pushed through Congress in his first three years in office "just didn't seem to trickle down to the hourly wage people who make this country run."


Heck, who was born in Guatemala and was adopted by an Erie family at age 6, said he believes the war in Iraq distracted Bush from focusing on how best to spark a robust economic recovery.

"I just haven't seen any real benefit from his administration," said Heck, who did not vote in 2000.

Many undecided

That so many remain undecided here could mean opportunity for the president as well as for Democrats. Another waitress at Bertrand's cafe, Chelsea Sloniger, says she has registered with the Green Party and voted last time for Ralph Nader. But when Bush begins campaigning actively, she says, she'll listen with an open mind.

"He'll really have to convince me," she says. "I don't think he focuses at all on environmental issues, which are important to me."

A sizable number of those interviewed say they remain undecided because they have not paid enough attention to politics so far to make an informed decision.


"Right now, I'm more interested in fishing and going down to hunting camp and getting drunk," said Dan Hemphill, who was sitting behind the counter at Hansen's Live Bait and Souvenir shop, selling canvas shelters to ice fishermen.

Hemphill, a registered independent, said he will start watching television a month before Election Day and begin paying attention to the campaigns. Given that Hemphill is an uncommitted voter in a swing state, the campaigns will likely be paying attention to him.