Voters' minds are made up -- maybe

Times Staff Writer

Amanda Lynn, a salesclerk at the Far West Fungi mushroom shop, likes Sen. Barack Obama, but worries that the country isn't ready for an African American president.

Investment banker Nicole Smith likes the idea of a female commander-in-chief but worries that Sen. Hillary Clinton's personal style may be too harsh.

Andrew Cross, a biochemistry major at San Francisco State, likes both Democratic contenders but is waiting to talk to his politically savvy grandmother to hear her recommendation.

"I like Hillary mostly because I like Bill a lot -- two for one," Cross said. "Barack seems like a new clean slate. He's fresh. I don't know how I am going to lean."

As Tuesday's California presidential primary approaches, voters who haven't yet made up their minds are weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates -- and evaluating their own ideas of what they want in a president.

For many undecided Democrats, the question is not simply which candidate they like best, but which has the best chance of winning in November.

A Times Poll last week indicated that the vast majority of California voters had made up their minds, but that a substantial number were wavering -- 27% of Clinton's supporters and 34% of Obama's.

Election officials expect a high turnout, and Democratic leaders say voters are enthusiastic about their choices.

A record number of new voters -- almost 151,000 -- registered as Democrats in the final 45 days of eligibility for Tuesday's election, party officials say.

"We have not seen this level of enthusiasm in a presidential primary in decades," said California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres. Independent voters, who make up nearly 20% of the electorate, also can vote in the Democratic primary if they request a ballot.

The race has been hotly contested, particularly in the Bay Area, the state's most heavily Democratic region. Obama's campaign staked it out first, running television ads here ahead of Clinton. Both candidates and their biggest surrogates have visited the area repeatedly.

At the San Francisco Ferry Building, a restored landmark with restaurants, specialty shops and throngs of people, interviews with dozens of voters suggested that Obama supporters remained firm in their views while Clinton supporters were less certain.

Ellen Chapin, who works at a Ferry Building flower shop, said she initially favored Clinton but now didn't know who would get her vote. She worries that if Clinton becomes the nominee, it will galvanize Republican voters who love to hate the Clintons.

"Basically, I want a Democrat," Chapin said. "I want the Republicans out. I will pick who I really think can win."

Chapin said she began reconsidering her support for Clinton after her daughter pushed her to vote for the Illinois senator. Then came endorsements for Obama from Sen. Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, which Chapin said "kind of stopped me in my tracks."

"I would love to see a woman be president, but I don't want it to be the only factor," she said. "Hillary is more unifying for the Republicans. It's scary that people dislike the Clintons so much."

Democrats Susan McMane, 59, and Mac Jernigan, 65, both of San Francisco, have been having similar thoughts. Clinton would be a strong candidate and would run a formidable campaign, they say. But as Arizona Sen. John McCain consolidates his position as the GOP front-runner, it suddenly looks as though the Republicans have a candidate who could beat her, they say. Now, they are taking a closer look at Obama.

"I have a lot of soul-searching to do," McMane said.

Mary Kapp of San Francisco had planned to vote for former Sen. John Edwards. But even after he dropped out last week, the English language instructor still finds herself with two appealing alternatives.

"You have two rather unique things happening," she said. "You have a woman with a viable chance of becoming president and an African American who has a viable chance."

She wonders if the country is ready for either, but says she is leaning toward Obama because he seems more visionary and less likely to get caught up in political games.

"It's really exciting," she said. "Finally an election has come along where you feel you have some choices."

Smith, the San Francisco investment banker, said she was leaning toward Obama because she was worried that Clinton could seem too forceful.

"I've been going back and forth," she said. "I like Hillary a lot. But Hillary is a bit frightening in ways. She's a very strong and powerful woman, but she also has some of the less positive attributes of a woman."

Stephanie Hansen, also a San Francisco investment banker, says she is still researching the candidates but is leaning toward Clinton.

"At this point I don't think there are any policy differences between them," she said. "I like the fact of having a woman."

She suspects Clinton would fare better against McCain than Obama would.

"I would say Hillary has more experience in running a campaign," she said. "Obama is more nontraditional."

Elice Acosta, who recently became unemployed, said she felt as though she could trust Clinton more because she is a woman, but saw Obama being able to reach out to a broader sector of the public.

"I feel like if I knew her I would probably like her," the Sausalito resident said. "For women, she's a great role model. But I see more support going to Obama and I see him being able to bridge the gap with Republicans."

Lynn, the mushroom store clerk who is voting in her first election, said Obama was her first choice. But after spending a month in Arizona recently and hearing the negative reaction Obama was getting, she is now leaning toward Hillary.

"Even though I'm not racist, I don't think our country is ready to vote for an African American, sad to say," said the 19-year-old San Franciscan, who is registered as an independent. "I don't want to vote for the losing team."

Still, Clinton hasn't completely won her over.

"The only reason I'm undecided," Lynn said, "is that I'm not sure if what Hillary says is to please everybody, or if she really means it."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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