For some, it’s a matter of manner

Finnegan is a Times staff writer.

Julia Cavenaugh is a Republican from Texas who voted twice for President Bush, so it is no easy stretch for the second-grade teacher to cast her ballot for Barack Obama.

Fed up with Republicans over the economy, she likes Obama’s tax and healthcare plans. After the economic crisis erupted last month, she found another reason to reject her party’s presidential nominee: temperament.

Watching John McCain debate Obama, she found his body language hostile, and said he seemed upset by his rival’s answers on the economy. “Obama is more tactful,” she said.

That’s part of why Cavenaugh increasingly sees Obama as the answer to her nagging question: “Who’s going to represent our country better?”

Swing voters have tilted Obama’s way as the economy has overwhelmed all other issues as the top priority for Americans. In interviews with Cavenaugh and a dozen others who participated in a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, demeanor emerged as a dominant theme in their explanations for why they trusted Obama more than McCain to guide the nation out of its financial crisis.


Jay Sicht, a 37-year-old independent voter who sells auto parts in Columbia, Mo., described Obama as “level-headed, calm, cool and collected under pressure” -- qualities that he wants in a president facing the prospect of a global depression.

Sicht has noticed that car owners have been delaying repairs to save money, so business has slowed down a bit. He works on commission, so it will hurt if customers scrimp even more.

He has qualms about Obama. The Illinois senator seems arrogant and abrasive, Sicht said, but his “gut feeling” is still to trust him.

McCain, on the other hand, comes off as a “hothead,” Sicht said. During the Republican primaries, Sicht was particularly unnerved by McCain responding to a question about whether it was time to send “an airmail message to Tehran” by referring to the Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann” as “Bomb Iran” and singing, “Bomb, bomb, bomb . . . " Sicht found nothing funny about it.

“I don’t feel he’s very stable mentally,” said Sicht, who voted for Bush in 2000 and a minor-party candidate in 2004.

Obama and McCain have tried to stoke negative impressions of each other’s personality. McCain has portrayed Obama as an elitist out of touch with mainstream America. He also has tried to raise suspicions about Obama’s ties with 1960s radical William Ayers and others, asking, “Who is the real Barack Obama?”

For his part, in recent weeks Obama has taken to calling McCain “erratic,” suggesting a steadier hand would be better-suited to leading an economic recovery.

As Sicht’s remarks suggest, doubts about McCain’s personal disposition could erode the edge he has long held over Obama on foreign affairs as well.

To Vandria Rainer, an independent who lives in San Luis Obispo, it looked like McCain was trying to score “fighting points” against Obama when he suspended his campaign and threatened to skip the first presidential debate until Congress passed a bailout bill.

“There seems to be a bit of fight in McCain that seems unpresidential,” said Rainer, 62, a teacher who voted for Bush in 2000 and his Democratic challenger, John F. Kerry, in 2004.

Willie Standifer of Virginia Beach, Va., put it another way: “You can’t just jump in without gathering the facts.”

A 50-year-old Democrat and former postal employee who has been out of work for several months, Standifer said McCain seemed like “a decent man,” but one who is less in tune with average Americans than Obama.

With the election just two weeks away, the vast majority of voters have made up their minds, but public opinion could shift back in McCain’s direction.

Beyond temperament, the interviews with swing voters suggest, McCain’s party affiliation also remains a major impediment to gaining support from voters who are normally open to backing a Republican.

“What has happened with the economy has pushed me over the edge to say, ‘No, I don’t want any more Republicans,’ ” said Barbara Webber, a retired Illinois pharmacist and political independent who voted for Bush.

Webber, 66, lives in Palos Hills, a Chicago suburb. She fears that recent hits to her 401(k) will soon force her to resume working. She and her siblings have been unable to sell the house they inherited last year from their mother, because “people are buying foreclosures instead,” she said.

Gaylord Yost, 75, a retired forester who lives in a Milwaukee suburb, River Hills, is also disgusted with Republicans. He faults McCain for supporting Bush’s economic policies, and assails the party for what he calls an “anything-goes” approach to business that has backfired.

“I’m not open to a Republican at all, because of what they’ve done,” said Yost, an independent. “As long as their party starts with an R, that’s it.”

For others, the nature of McCain’s campaign has proved a turnoff.

Russ Houser, 51, a carpenter who lives in Cedaredge, Colo., said McCain used to be his “favorite Republican.” But Houser said that McCain had “gone overboard” in focusing on Ayers, and that the distortions in his attack ads raised doubts about his honesty.

What cemented his unfavorable view of McCain, though, was “the showmanship” of his response to the economic crisis -- “running back to Washington and suspending his campaign,” said Houser, an independent.

Obama, by contrast, has “kept his cool,” Houser said.

By paying attention to mannerisms, posture and vocal inflections, he added, “I think everybody gets an impression on whether they believe someone or not.”

And when it comes to Obama, Houser said, “I believe him.”