DAYTON, OHIO — DAYTON, Ohio - Worries about the Iraq war are gnawing at undecided voters in Ohio - and that might not be President Bush's biggest problem in this fiercely contested state, if a recent focus-group discussion here is any indication.
When a dozen on-the-fence Ohioans were asked whether they thought America's involvement in Iraq will ultimately be seen as a good thing, not a single person said "yes."
Instructed to put down on a notepad a couple of images from the past year that they expected would stick in their minds, eight came up with the same answer: the indelible scenes of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Several were bluntly critical of the president for rushing into war, including Cheryl Maggard, who voted for Bush in 2000.
"He was a little too froggy. He jumped too quick," said the 48-year-old from Lebanon, Ohio, who runs a small house-cleaning service. "I don't think he had a plan about how to get out. You don't get in a fight if you don't know where the exit is. That's the one thing I don't like about him."
The sometimes emotional comments about the war dominated Tuesday night's discussion in this Midwest community. But these independent voters said that when it comes to choosing a president, they care more about other, closer-to-home issues.
Their concerns - about jobs, health care costs and the direction of the economy - will determine how they'll vote, most said, and could well lead some to turn to Sen. John Kerry in November.
"You could see the challenges to the president here," said pollster Peter Hart, who moderated the two-hour session as part of an election year project by the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which is examining voter attitudes in key states. Though seven of the 12 undecideds backed Bush four years ago, only four are leaning his way at the moment.
"On the substance of the issue, people feel that nothing has gone right" in Iraq, although Bush wins "character points" for being tough-minded and decisive, Hart said.
Should the overseas situation improve, however, it might only increase the importance of domestic concerns, which aren't working to Bush's advantage with most of these undecided voters.
Statistics pointing to a nationwide economic recovery haven't convinced the southern Ohio residents, who are unhappy about outsourcing and the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. They are also deeply skeptical of claims that the new jobs that have been created pay as well as the ones that were lost.
Aside from Iraq, all the talk "was about an economy that wasn't working," said Hart, who normally polls for Democrats. "In the end, it seems to me that [the election] comes back to the domestic side."
Not all of these swing voters said they hold Bush responsible for the economy, and most said they don't know enough yet about Kerry to make an informed choice. The Massachusetts senator plans to use his acceptance speech at this month's Democratic National Convention to begin persuading undecideds that he can be trusted with the presidency.
Here in closely divided Ohio, which has backed the winner in every presidential election since 1960 (no Republican has ever won the White House without it), fewer than one voter in six is still up for grabs, campaign officials say.
One of those who clearly is: Deborah Harris, a 53-year-old Dayton homemaker who voted for Bush last time but isn't ready to commit to him again.
Bush "is strong" and "has guts," but "he's gone the wrong way" in Iraq and the economy is "terrible." Kerry seems "real smart" and "thoughtful. ... But I'm not sure he's strong," Harris said. "He's new and fresh. We don't know him yet."
Daniel Goddard, a Gore voter in 2000, is leaning toward Bush. Primarily, he says, that's because wartime is a bad time to change leaders. The 43-year-old aerospace engineer at Dayton's Wright-Patterson Air Force base (site of early aviation experiments by the Wright brothers a century ago) said he needs to "get a better feeling" about Kerry's leadership ability if the Democrat is going to win his vote.
"A lot's been made of his leadership during the Vietnam War. But that was 30 years ago," said Goddard.
Approval for Edwards
Most seemed to think Kerry looks like a president. And his most important decision to date - his choice of a running mate - was clearly a hit here.
Theresa Aikens is inclined to vote for Bush again because he "has shown the ability to stand strong" in fighting terrorism "and I'm not sure John Kerry has that ability." But the "happily married" 33-year-old mother of two elementary school children admits that the addition of John Edwards "definitely swayed my opinion toward the Kerry ticket."
The North Carolina senator's working-class background and his loss of a teenage son in a fatal traffic accident "draws me to Edwards. That's important," she said.
Dana Mark Bales, 54, who leans Republican but voted for Edwards in the state's open presidential primary, said the vice presidential choice "improved my opinion of Kerry" because it showed he had the self-confidence "that I didn't think he had" to select someone who might overshadow him as a personality.
The Edwards honeymoon with voters such as these might not last, but "John Edwards was the huge, big winner out of this focus group," said pollster Hart. He has "brought a dynamism and a sense of life to the ticket," which could help the patrician Kerry strengthen his connection to middle-class voters.
When the moderator asked the group for concise descriptions of the candidates, they said Kerry was "too serious and staid," "a little uptight," "a little stiff" and "needs to loosen up."
By contrast, Edwards was "charismatic," "exuberant," "exciting," "a fun guy" and "willing to fight for the underdog." His career as a plaintiff's attorney, which earned him millions of dollars and is already drawing Republican campaign attacks, was never explicitly mentioned. Two voters expressed concern about his brief experience in government but at least one said it wouldn't affect her vote.
Asked to describe what kind of next-door neighbor Edwards might make, John Franz, a 53-year-old father of three, imagined someone who would "be talking over the fence all the time." When the participants were asked to choose the one candidate they would want as a character witness at their trial, most chose Edwards.
"He'd come across as honest and trustworthy," said Goddard.
When the question was which of the candidates you'd want negotiating for your release if you were held hostage in a foreign country, Vice President Dick Cheney was the choice of several voters.
"I think he's one smart guy," said Franz, who is leaning toward Kerry. Others praised Cheney's business experience (and there was no mention of the idea that Bush should drop him from the ticket, as some Republicans have suggested).
Bush's personal warmth continues to be among his strengths, as it was in the 2000 election. Members of the group envisioned him as a "folksy" neighbor "you could count on" for help and "a good friend."
But several still have their doubts. Bill Pant, a 36-year-old graphics designer who isn't leaning toward any candidate at the moment, finds Bush puzzling.
"I don't know where he's coming from sometimes," he said. "That's why I think I'm undecided. I can't figure out whether he's sincere, whether he's smart enough or whether he's strong. Sometimes he shows me a little bit of both things."
The remark drew nods of approval from several around the table.
FOCUS GROUP COMMENTS
M-tI want to scream M-fGet out! Get outM-F M-v of Iraq. M-tItM-Fs a no-win situation. ... It was right to go in and get Saddam out. Turn it over to [the Iraqis]. Let them take it.M-v
John Franz, 53, supervisor at a community blood center who voted for Gore in 2000. He is undecided but leaning toward Kerry.
M-tGet us out of Iraq. [Do] something with the economy, something thatM-Fll help somebody like me. ... Bring some new jobs to Ohio or some manufacturing jobs. Do something like that between now and November and, boy, youM-Fll probably win my vote.M-v
Bill Andrews, 50, who voted for Bush in 2000 but is undecided this year
M-tI hear weM-Fve created all these jobs, but what kind of jobs are they? Are they at Burger King, flipping burgers? Or professional jobs? It seems like these jobs are little ones that you canM-Ft support yourself on.M-v
Jody Blair, 33, self-employed puppeteer and choreographer who voted for Bush in 2000. This year, she is undecided but leaning toward Bush.
M-tI think we need to be more M-fAmerica FirstM-F here at home: our jobs, our health care, our education.M-v
Dana Mark Bales, 54, owns a print advertising company, voted for Bush in 2000. She is undecided but leaning toward Kerry.
M-tIM-Fm not very happy with George Bush. ... What kind of a leader was he during the terrorist acts? He sat there for seven minutes and did nothing. To me, thatM-Fs not a strong leader. He couldnM-Ft make a decision. To me, that is obvious.M-v
Janet Lee, 64, retired respiratory therapist who voted for Gore in 2000. She is undecided but leans toward Kerry.
M-tKerry looks good on paper. He sounds good. But ... I need to see more of his military side, so when it comes down to a situation like 9/11, IM-Fd like to know that heM-Fs going to step up to the plate and protect us.M-v
Bill Pant, 36, art director for a home office trade show company who voted for Gore in 2000, is undecided.