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Kerry Wins Over Some in Pennsylvania

Times Staff Writer

Here at a principal skirmish line in one of America’s key battleground states, Sen. John F. Kerry became a little more presidential Thursday evening, and President Bush was somewhat diminished -- at least in the eyes of the majority of the voters who watched the first debate between the two candidates.

About two dozen undecided voters were among 100 people who participated in a panel at Muhlenberg College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, a region rife with coveted swing voters.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 7, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Presidential debate -- An article in Friday’s Section A about a focus group’s reaction to the presidential debate quoted Muhlenberg College graduate Mitch Keating as saying President Bush had assembled a coalition in Iraq that included “Great Britain and Italy and Poland and 50 other countries.” Keating named the specified nations but made no reference to “50 other countries.”

Those in the crowd laughed several times when Bush smirked or stammered, and several undecided voters said afterward that they found Kerry more articulate and decisive.

Beth Buechler, who voted for Bush four years ago and Ronald Reagan before that, said she had been struggling this year with her presidential pick, in large part because she believes the U.S. has become bogged down in Iraq.

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But at the end of Thursday’s 1 1/2 -hour session, she called Kerry the “hands down” winner and predicted that, if elected, he could make “a great statesman.”

“I think he was very composed, very dignified and very on point,” said Buechler, a secretary at the college, where the group watched the debate on a big-screen TV in a science lecture hall. “After listening to him, I can’t believe I was undecided. He did a great job of fleshing out every point.”

Bruce Glazier, 60, a credit analyst for a hardware store, said he was uneasy by the president’s long pauses and hesitation in answering some questions.

“To be laughing at your president -- and it wasn’t that he said anything funny -- that is not good,” said Glazier, an independent who also came into the room undecided. “I wonder how he comes across to the rest of the world when he acts like that.... Is he making the world laugh at him too?”

Many in the audience agreed, however, that there had been no single knockout punch by either candidate, and that they would watch the next Kerry-Bush debate on Oct. 8 closely.

Sally Sayre, a Republican from New Tripoli, said she was impressed by Bush’s plans for ending the nuclear threat from North Korea.

“I think Bush is absolutely on the right track to engage North Korea and China and Japan, and to work on a decision that is going to work for the whole region,” said Sayre, a high school teacher. “Kerry accuses him of not bringing in enough allies, but he [the president] is absolutely doing it in North Korea.”

And Mitch Keating, a 23-year-old who recently graduated from the college, said he heard Kerry repeatedly say he had a better plan for Iraq without outlining that plan. He said the challenger’s promises of building international alliances were hollow.

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“When Kerry is talking about Bush not having the rest of the world on our side, he is really talking about France and Germany,” said Keating, a Republican who voted for Bush four years ago.

“We have Great Britain and Italy and Poland and 50 other countries. We do really have an alliance, and President Bush is right,” he said.

People in the audience instantly recorded their impressions of the president and the senator from Massachusetts by punching their responses into numbered keypads. The group was balanced about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, with a smattering of independents filling out the tiered student seating in the small lecture hall. Although the final results will not be released until today, the preliminary findings that flashed on the screen during the debate showed Kerry consistently scoring closer to the “very good” rating. Bush tended to hover closer to average, and sometimes below average.

Chris Borick, the political science professor who arranged the focus group, cautioned that the findings were only a snapshot in time and not an indication of how anyone would vote.

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On virtually all of the questions, the audience scored Kerry’s responses higher than Bush’s. The crowd seemed particularly impatient with Bush, groaning audibly when he repeated several times that the rebuilding of Iraq and rooting out of terrorism was “hard work.”

One of the biggest disparities in the audience’s opinions of the two candidates came when host Jim Lehrer of PBS asked Bush whether the war in Iraq had been worth the cost in lost lives and billions of dollars expended.

The president talked about how much it hurt him to have to meet with the families of dead service members. But Kerry responded that though he felt great compassion for the “warriors” fighting for the U.S., he wanted to “make sure the outcome honors that nobility.” He added: “The president’s plan is four words: more of the same. And I think my plan is better.”

Bush then had trouble forming his rebuttal and paused for several seconds, drawing a loud laugh from many in the group.

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The long-range impact of the debate was hard to discern. Kerry seemed to have established himself as a more credible candidate than he had been going in, at least with this small crowd in one important electoral corner of the country.

Two other Muhlenberg students, who said they would vote for the first time Nov. 2, were among those who said they had been undecided but would take a harder look at Kerry now.

Jacinda Caras, an English major from Maine, said she was impressed by how articulate and concise Kerry was, although she still remains closer to Bush on issues like abortion.

Mark Grabarits, 22, who grew up in the Lehigh Valley and is now attending law school in Delaware, also came into the evening unable to pick between the two candidates. Although he left feeling Kerry had appeared “presidential,” the debate had not made his choice any easier.

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“I think there was good information on both sides, and I have to go back and weigh the issues and what is more important to me,” said Grabarits, a moderate Republican who said he voted for Bush four years ago.

“I think they would both do an excellent job in foreign policy, and it might be the other issues that tip the scale for me. We will have to see.”

The voters met in a lecture hall at Muhlenberg College here in the Lehigh Valley, a region with a relatively high concentration of moderate “persuadable” voters who could tip the balance in Pennsylvania, which has 21 electoral votes.

Bush has been working furiously to reverse his 200,000-vote loss in the state four years ago. Most media analysts and Kerry aides cannot construct a winning scenario for the Democrat without a victory in Pennsylvania.

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If the importance of this area needed any more emphasis, Bush provided it when he made plans to make his first post-debate stop here. He is scheduled to rally supporters in Allentown late this morning.

After leading here comfortably about the time of the Democratic National Convention in late July, Kerry saw his lead slip away and Bush forge to a narrow advantage. Only in the last couple of weeks has the senator regained a tiny edge in several polls.

Once the home of German Catholic workers who toiled in the steel mills and other heavy industries, the unemployment rate in Lehigh Valley mirrors that in the rest of America, but voters in recent polls here have mentioned the economy as their biggest concern -- even ahead of the war in Iraq.

“Even though a lot of the macro-economic indicators are getting better here, it takes people here a little longer to warm up to that,” Borick said. “I think that is an artifact of the rough times as industrialization faded around here.”

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