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Convention Helps Bush Gain Undecided Voters

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Times Staff Writer

Maybe it was the one-two punch of Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush, extolling the virtues of the man who wants to be president -- again. Maybe it was the lack of punching back by Sen. John F. Kerry, the target of increasing attacks at the Republican National Convention and in a barrage of broadcast ads.

Maybe it was the confluence of factors -- a good nominating convention for President Bush in New York and a bad month for his Democratic rival. Either way, Jackie Costa, a 36-year-old public relations account executive from suburban Milwaukee and heretofore undecided voter, has made up her mind.

“I think I know who I’m going to vote for,” Costa said Friday, after following the Republican convention all week. “I think I’m going to vote for George Bush.... Hearing the good and positive things about George Bush has made me lean more toward him.”

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With its relentless reminders of Sept. 11 and some of the most aggressive speeches of the campaign, the Republican convention helped Bush solidify his standing as a steady leader who can help the country navigate a dangerous world, at least among a small group of undecided voters interviewed Friday. They were among the 5% of the electorate identified by a recent Times Poll as unsure about who to choose as president in November.

For most of them, Bush largely came across as forceful and consistent during the four-day nominating convention in New York, and the majority finished the week either considering a Republican vote in November or pretty firmly in the president’s column.

In addition to the convention, which was capped by the president’s acceptance speech Thursday night, the undecided voters said they also were nudged by a barrage of negative ads about Kerry. The combination left many of them with a sense that the Democratic candidate could not make up his mind about questions facing the nation.

Still, not all of them were sure about what they would do on election day. Arline Rosenzweig, a 70-year-old secretary for the Palm Beach, Fla., school board, said she watched the convention and it did nothing to help her make up her mind.

“I don’t think it means a thing. Everybody talks a good storm,” said the Boynton Beach resident, as Hurricane Frances approached her hometown. “But they’ll only be able to do as much as Congress lets them.... Talk is cheap. I’m very undecided. I got till November, right?”

But the many comments during the virtual focus group Friday showed that this small corps of undecided voters could be shrinking even further, as Bush enjoys the traditional post-convention bounce.

However, the slow trek toward certainty didn’t do much to ease the discomfort many said they felt before the convention about being on the fence. For some, the decision to vote for Bush came more from pained resignation than confidence that the Republican was the best person for the job.

“I guess we better put Bush in by default and hope things get turned around,” said Charles Ryan Sr., a retired laboratory technician from Missouri, who a week ago was solidly undecided. “I’m voting for more of the same when I don’t believe in it.”

If “that makes me a hypocrite,” said Ryan, 67, then so be it. What he’d really like to see is a candidate he does not think exists: “someone with Bush’s charisma who can get programs through [Congress] and get us out of Iraq.”

Listening to Bush give his acceptance speech, Ryan said he was overwhelmed by the size of the task in Iraq, worried by a sense that “terrorism is going to get worse and worse and worse” and left thinking that “Bush is the right guy to get in there because Kerry can’t handle what Bush has created.”

A week ago, Donald Peterson said he couldn’t make up his mind about the election because Bush “leaves a lot to be desired.” The retired traveling salesman was worried about the economy, about outsourcing and about whether Social Security funds would be tapped to help finance the war in Iraq.

On Friday, he said he had watched the convention and still “didn’t hear anything about the economy” or a clear plan to get out of the war. Although he’s still undecided, he said, “I’m starting to lean, probably the Bush way.”

The 83-year-old from Rice Lake, Wis., described the convention as “kind of a rehash of what [Bush] did and what he expects to do.” But he liked the line-up of speakers, and overall, said “it sure was exciting. We put on a good show, I’ll tell you that.”

What Peterson heard from the president, though, was a two-edged sword. Bush “sticks by his word,” he said. “He’s determined.” That’s the good part. On the other hand, he said of Iraq: “I don’t believe in some of his tactics. He makes up his mind,” and everyone else just has “to follow along.”

Stephanie Diaz, a single mother from Ashtabula, Ohio, was struck by Bush’s sincerity Thursday night. She liked what he said about fighting the war in Iraq. And even though the hour got late and she got sleepy, Diaz said she was touched by the very end of Bush’s address, in which he invoked the name of God and talked about “a calling from beyond the stars.”

When Bush talked about God, Diaz said, “that made me think he was a good guy.” But not good enough to commit to him in November. Diaz, 32, is raising three children without child support. She has a part-time job picking up trash outside of her apartment building.

She said she’s still not sure why the country went to war in Iraq. If it was for oil, it didn’t work, she said, because gas prices are higher than ever. Though she finished out the convention week leaning more toward Bush than Kerry, she said she still hadn’t forgiven the president for the protracted end of the 2000 election and questions about the results in Florida.

“When Bush was in office, I was so mad. I felt like he cheated about the Florida thing,” she said. “Then 9/11 happened. I still blame Bush, but I have more respect for him. He made me feel secure and that everything would be all right. It’s what changed my mind.”

Though some of those interviewed said they felt that Bush was able to protect the country from terrorist threats -- a major theme of his campaign and convention -- Mary Tarrow, a homemaker from Madison, Wis., said she was offended by the convention’s emphasis.

“I feel like Bush is really milking this ‘protecting America,’ and he is not dealing with what America needs,” said Tarrow, 51. “He is really being negligent about domestic issues, economic issues, medical issues. He’s not addressing those in a coherent, workable way.”

Tarrow said she’s certainly not better off than she was four years ago. Gas prices have jumped, along with the cost of drugs and groceries and rent, she said. She wishes that Americans could get their prescriptions filled in Canada, where it’s cheaper.

Kerry has made just such a proposal, but Tarrow is still torn about who to vote for in November. The Democrat might be better on domestic matters, she said, but she doesn’t have the confidence that he would be strong enough in a military crisis or able to get the country out of Iraq.

And, she said, underscoring a thread that ran through the four-day convention and most of Bush’s campaign ads, Kerry “seems so wishy-washy.... He votes consistently in one direction, and he says other things. That kind of worries me and makes me think I’m not sure what he can do.”

But anti-Kerry ads aired by the Bush campaign and a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth backfired for Carol Leach, 52.

A tennis fan, Leach said she watched the U.S. Open instead of the Republican convention.

She has seen the ads, can recite their major allegations and is troubled by what she called the Republican “mudslinging.” Kerry hasn’t been as nasty over the last two weeks, she said, so she has taken herself out of the undecided column and lined up behind the Democrat.

“I’m a person that believes in honor. I don’t know that I believe what Bush and his supporters are saying about Kerry,” she said. “At least Kerry’s addressing the issues.... I don’t jump to conclusions, and I take my time. I’m pretty sure I’m going to vote for Kerry.”


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