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Undecided Voters Still Uncertain of Kerry

Times Staff Writer

Sen. John F. Kerry has a lot of work to do this week in Boston.

He needs to persuade Joe Damico, a computer programmer from Ohio, that he’s tough enough to lead the nation into war.

He must convince Joe Moragues, who repairs tractors in Florida, that he can spread prosperity to the watermelon fields there -- and to little guys all across America.

He must show Maureen Frutchey, a disabled factory worker from Pennsylvania, that he understands what it feels like to tell your daughter she can have only one glass of milk because you need to keep the grocery bill down.

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As he claims center stage at the Democratic National Convention, Kerry must define himself to undecided voters like these, identified in a recent Los Angeles Times poll.

“What do you stand for? Who the hell are you? And what are you passionate about, other than holding office?” asks Frances Montrosso, 58, a house cleaner from Syracuse, N.Y.

“There’s a special part of all of us that’s about what we’ll fight for, what we truly believe in,” she says. “That’s what I want to see from John Kerry.”

A Times poll of registered voters conducted last week found that 7% have not determined whether they will support President Bush or challenger Kerry in November. As a group, they tend to be more moderate, more affluent and slightly older than those who have committed to a candidate.

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With the presidential race neck and neck, their votes could be decisive. To learn more about their uncertainty, The Times interviewed a dozen of them at length.

From this informal focus group, a clear theme emerged: From Florida to Ohio to Colorado to Alaska, undecided voters may be dissatisfied with Bush, but they’re not convinced that Kerry is worth their mark on the ballot. They say they simply do not know enough about him.

“I have a tendency always to support the one who’s in [office] until I can concretely see a reason to change,” said Larry Redford, 61, a retired insurance salesman from Kevil, Ky.

A nuts-and-bolts primer on how Kerry would hold down healthcare costs might do it for Redford. So might a detailed explanation of Kerry’s strategy on Iraq. Whatever the topic, when he tunes into the Democratic convention this week, Redford wants to hear specific plans, not fuzzy promises.

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So does Frutchey, 39, the former candy-factory worker in Ashley, Pa., who was disabled on the job several years ago. Soon after, the factory shut down, moving production to Mexico. And Frutchey’s husband, a steelworker, has barely held on to his job through the industry’s tumult; the family still wonders, week to week, how many more paychecks they can count on.

Frutchey blames her family’s tight budget -- the dinners heavy on pasta and light on meat -- on free-trade agreements such as NAFTA. She longs for the job security that used to come with factory work. She hopes Kerry can convince her that he’ll bring good jobs back, even at the expense of angering allies such as Mexico.

“Everyone I know is either losing their job or their job is in jeopardy,” she said. “I want [a president] who will be there for the citizens of the United States, who will say clearly that we’re more important to him than helping out other countries.”

She’ll be listening for that in Boston.

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The Democratic convention gives Kerry a golden opportunity to introduce himself to voters like Frutchey, who say their main impression of him so far comes from TV ads -- including Bush’s. “Most of what I know about him is from the bad stuff Bush is putting out,” said Moragues, 57, the tractor repairman who owns a shop in Brooksville, Fla.

The few facts that he and others can recall about Kerry’s biography tend to trouble them.

Several undecided voters said they were uneasy that Kerry had married into great wealth; they worry that he doesn’t understand the day-to-day struggles of ordinary Americans. Some see his marriage to Teresa Heinz Kerry, the widow of a former senator and heir to a ketchup fortune, as distastefully opportunistic -- a move to advance his political ambition.

A few in The Times’ informal focus group also raised concerns about Kerry’s military record, which Democratic strategists have long considered one of the candidate’s top strengths.

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Frutchey, for instance, said she couldn’t stand the TV ads that describe Kerry’s loyalty to the men he fought alongside as a naval Swift boat officer in Vietnam. He may have been a hero on the frontline, she said, but his decision to protest the war when he returned home seems, to her, a betrayal.

“It’s unbecoming,” Redford, the retired insurance salesman from Kentucky, agreed.

Beyond a few things about his marriage and his military service, the undecided voters acknowledged they know little about Kerry or the issues that drive him. Few have taken time to read his website or his campaign literature. Among the vague -- and often, contradictory -- phrases they came up with to describe him are: “a nice guy,” “a flip-flopper,” “politically motivated,” “one of us,” “too much Washington establishment.”

They know even less about his running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. As Moragues put it: “He’s just out there smiling.”

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That smile might come in handy this week, because voter after voter expressed longing for an upbeat, optimistic campaign. They grumble that most of what they’ve heard from Kerry so far -- in TV ads and sound bites on the evening news -- has been a gloomy list of all that ails America and an angry litany of charges against Bush.

“Politics has gotten so vicious and so partisan, it seems like you can’t run on a platform any more,” said Janis Bishop, 68, a retired college anatomy professor from LaPorte, Colo.

“It’s the same old pound-the-fist-on-the-podium kind of stuff,” said Mark Algar, 44, a machine operator in Lake City, Fla.

In Forrest City, Ark., Kelly Lewis, 39, suggests the partisan attacks often backfire.

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For instance, Kerry often criticizes Bush’s tax cuts as benefiting mostly the rich. That makes Lewis, a deputy county treasurer, wonder if Kerry understands how the real world works.

When her neighbors began receiving checks from the Internal Revenue Service last summer -- advances on the Bush tax credit for dependent children -- several used the money to buy used cars from a lot her husband owns. Lewis figures they sold seven or eight extra cars as the tax credit circulated through eastern Arkansas; it was a huge boost for her family’s struggling business.

The tax cut “certainly helped us,” she concluded, “and we’re far from rich.”

Lewis is weary as well of hearing Kerry charge that Bush misled the public about Iraq. She doesn’t like how Bush has run the war.

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She expects Kerry, as a decorated combat veteran, might do better. But she wants him to explain exactly how he’d do better, not just point out his rival’s mistakes.

“I have a 17-year-old son who’s considering a career in the military. That’s scary for me. I have to consider, ‘Who do I want to be commander in chief if my child is over there?’ ” Lewis said.

Similar doubts weigh on Damico, the computer programmer from Columbus, Ohio.

Damico, 54, supports the Democratic platform on social issues, including abortion rights and same-sex marriage. But he often votes Republican for two key reasons: He prefers the GOP philosophy of a smaller federal government, and he trusts Republicans more with the nation’s defense.

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After four years of watching the current administration, Damico has serious qualms about the president; he calls Bush a “puritan” and a “crusader.” Still, he’s reluctant to hand over national security to a Democrat.

If Kerry can make a convincing case that he’ll be every bit as aggressive as Bush in fighting terrorism, he might earn Damico’s trust. But this undecided swing-state voter warns he won’t be easily convinced.

“I think it’s going to take me a couple more months to really make up my mind,” he said.

“I’m going to have to do a little soul-searching on this one,” Damico said. “I don’t want to just vote against Bush. I want to feel like I’m voting for someone.”

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