Americans will be choosing change in 2008, if a group of Maryland voters is any indication. Whether the next president will be a Democrat is another question, though.
Sen. Barack Obama drew the most positive responses, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton came in for rough treatment, during the first in a national series of focus-group discussions sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center.
But when the area voters were asked who would be the safest choice to lead the country in these uncertain times, nearly all, including Democrats and independents, picked Republicans: former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain or former Gov. Mitt Romney.
Veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who led the two-hour session, said it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of homeland security in the 2008 election, calling it "a hidden underlying issue."
The cross-section of suburban voters, which met Monday night in Towson, reflected closely divided Baltimore County: five Democrats, four Republicans and three independents.
Hart said afterward that voters are "looking for, as much as anything, a sense of reassurance [and] asking: 'Is this [candidate] going to be safe?'"
The answer favored Republicans McCain, with his military background, and Giuliani, best known for his response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
As for Clinton, voters couldn't seem to get beyond concerns about her personality, her husband and her single-minded drive for power.
Most said they wouldn't vote for her under any circumstance. Some who had backed President Bill Clinton said she has a long way to go to gain their trust.
"I totally agree with her stances, but she just comes off as cold and kind of conniving," said Dennis Yeagle, 27, a Baltimore securities analyst who favors Obama.
Susana Lacayo, 37, of Owings Mills described Clinton as someone who had been plotting her run for years. Even when her husband was in office, "you always felt that she wanted to become the president," said Lacayo, a bank loan officer.
Obama elicited enthusiastic reactions across party lines, with voters describing him as "charismatic" and "smart."
At the same time, there was uneasiness about his limited track record.
Yeagle, an independent who voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, said he thinks Obama "has the most potential. But he is that question mark. He is a mystery."
Obama "would be great, maybe in eight years, but not right now," said Clinton backer Sandee Lever, 72, of Pikesville, a director of an early childhood center.
"He seems young. I just haven't seen enough about him," said Democratic liberal Fay Citerone, 53, who began the session as an Obama supporter and wound up with Clinton. "I guess my opinion may have morphed as the evening went on," she explained later. "It's so early."
Contrasting reactions to the top Democratic contenders are "the two sides of the pencil," said pollster Hart. "Obama's going to get to use the lead side. Hillary's going to get to use the eraser."
With the Iraq war casting a shadow and most voters not fully engaged, the discussion showed there's room for lesser-known candidates to gain, said Hart. Several said they wanted to know more about Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. One Giuliani supporter, Richard Jagielski, 56, a Kingsville auto salesman, hesitated after learning about the New Yorker's support for gun control and said he would "investigate him" further.
From voters in both parties, there was a strong desire for a president with qualities very different from George W. Bush's.
They stressed the importance of electing someone who could end partisan infighting in Washington, inspire greater respect abroad and focus more on the problems of ordinary Americans.
"There is a lot of discontent, and it probably has a lot to do with Iraq and the way the Hurricane Katrina issues were handled," said Citerone, a Towson systems analyst. "I think we need a sea change in leadership."
Tracy Mangione, 43, a Towson homemaker who has gone back to college, would like the next president to concentrate more "on the home front" issues of education and the environment.
"We need somebody in there who wants to get out of Iraq as soon as possible," said Mangione, a conservative Republican who once voted for Ross Perot, then went with Bush and is now thinking about supporting Obama.
The staunchest Bush backer in the room, Janice Rice, 42, a Lutherville dental hygienist, said that after 20 years of Bushes and Clintons in the White House, she is "Bush-Clintoned out."
"I don't need Bushes and Clintons running my life anymore," said Rice, who is leaning to McCain. "I love Bush ... but I want a new, fresh something."