National polls show former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani leading the pack of Republican presidential contenders. Statewide polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the key early states in the nomination process, find former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the strongest position.
But an evening with conservative voters in a suburb of Virginia’s prosperous capital tells a different story: Many, perhaps most, Republicans are still essentially undecided. They’re looking for the next Ronald Reagan, and they’re not sure they’ve found him yet -- although some are hoping former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee will ride in and sweep them off their feet.
“The [next] president needs to be a strong leader . . . somebody who’s going to be able to pull the country together,” said Susie Rommell, 54, an information technology trainer. She said she favors Giuliani but could change her mind.
“I want a strong conservative,” said David Armstrong, 42, an accountant. He said he favors Thompson.
In a two-hour-long discussion organized by pollster Peter D. Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, a dozen GOP voters late this week discussed the issues on their minds, the qualities they want in a president and their uncertainty about their party’s crop of candidates.
The country is not in good shape, they quickly agreed.
“We’re in a lot of trouble,” said Ted Lacy, 38, a software designer. “There’s the war, especially, and we’re spending more than we should.”
“I don’t want my grandchildren inheriting what we’re setting up,” said June Beninghove, 67, who described herself as a “full-time grandmother.”
The daunting list of problems they talked about included not only the war in Iraq but the threat of terrorism, a flagging economy, illegal immigration and -- to some, at the root of it all -- declining moral values.
All 12 voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, but few were willing to offer much praise for him now.
“Mixed results,” said Brian Matt, 48, a mortgage banker.
“Disappointment,” sighed Ann Turner, 34, a fitness instructor. “I think we need a breath of fresh air.”
Eight of the 12 said they want the next president to take the country in a direction different from the course Bush has set. But when it comes to the Republican candidates, most of these conservative voters haven’t been won over by anyone.
“No standouts,” said Jill Morley, 44, a schoolteacher, when asked to describe the GOP field.
“Second string,” said Armstrong.
At the beginning of the evening, a straw poll around the table gave Giuliani four votes, Thompson three, Romney two and Sen. John McCain of Arizona two.
One of the participants didn’t make a choice and, although Morley did, she said: “But I’m really undecided.”
Several others nodded in sympathy.
Two hours later, when offered a choice between solely Giuliani and Thompson, nine of the 12 voters said they would probably pick Thompson.
Giuliani won praise for his toughness and his leadership in New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but criticism for his moderate positions on abortion and civil unions for homosexuals.
Thompson won praise for his conservative positions on social issues and what these voters perceived as his more approachable personality.
“Thompson is more ‘people,’ more open, more listening,” said Jennifer Wade, 23, a telephone call center worker.
The thrust of the “focus group” discussion mirrored the findings of a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll last month. That survey found Giuliani and Thompson are the most popular candidates among GOP voters nationwide, but most said they could still end up supporting someone else.
Pollster Hart, summarizing the tone of the focus group, said, “They’re dying to find somebody, and nobody has emerged.
He added: “You have two different races: the professional race and the personal race. The professional race is won almost overwhelmingly by Rudy Giuliani, but when it comes to personal qualities, they strongly prefer Fred Thompson.”
Several women in the group, asked to describe Giuliani, chose unflattering adjectives. “Cold,” said Wade. “Cocky,” said Beninghove.
Thompson, on the other hand, is “more like Reagan,” said George Kraynak, 65, a retired maintenance supervisor.
Terry Austin, 49, a Virginia state trooper, said Thompson “reminds me of a time gone by that we’d like to have back. He’s got that air of a good ol’ country boy that’s got the whole country in his mind.”
Asked which candidate they would want to organize their neighborhood’s response to a disaster, nine named Giuliani. Asked which candidate they would most want to spend a weekend with, 10 said Thompson.
Romney, who is hoping that wins in Iowa and New Hampshire will vault him to the nomination, presented a problem to many of these voters: They don’t know much about him, but they do know he’s a Mormon and that, Armstrong said, “makes me nervous.”
Five of the 12 voters said Romney’s faith made them unlikely to vote for him.
“I really hate to hold someone’s religion against them,” said Matt. “But part of being a strong leader is having Christian values in the mainstream.”
He added: “I’m not unmovable. If [Romney] did bring [his religion] into the open and assured the American people, ‘I’m going to govern in a broad and open way,’ the way [John F.] Kennedy, who was our first Catholic president, did . . . I think that might sway me.”
Romney has mused about making such a speech, and most analysts expect him to do so at some point.
As for McCain, these voters expressed respect for his heroism as a prisoner of war in Vietnam but showed little inclination to vote for him.
The presidency “is a high-stress job, and I think age would be a factor,” Austin said. McCain, 71, would be the oldest person elected president.
The leading Democratic candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, won grudging respect as a formidable figure -- but, not surprisingly, no support from these conservatives.
“She’s extremely competent,” said Matt. “I just don’t happen to agree with her.”
“I’d vote for Mickey Mouse before I’d vote for Hillary Clinton,” growled Armstrong.