Debate reaction varies

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Voters leaning toward John McCain found themselves drawn to Barack Obama. Obama-leaners found themselves entranced by words from McCain. And several voters who were undecided at the start of Tuesday's presidential debate found themselves in exactly the same place afterward.

In the den and kitchen at the home of Margaret Aragon de Chavez, about two dozen waffling voters who gathered to watch the debate proved an eerie echo of New Mexico's razor-thin presidential elections: Among a group ranging from high school students to adults nearing retirement, there was no consensus who won.

Joseph Morgan, 26, said that he hopes to soon buy a house and that he found McCain's economic policy reassuring.

"What's the economy going to be like when I decide to make investments for my children's future?" he asked.

Valerie Quintana, a 33-year-old who works in behavioral health, sharply disagreed.

"I heard something completely different," she said. "I thought McCain was pointing the finger a lot, and I heard more solid answers from Obama than McCain. . . . His priorities align more with mine on energy, healthcare and Social Security."

Some, like Katherine Anzures, a 54-year-old manager, yearned for more information. She is leaning toward Obama but has a nagging fear that his lack of military experience could be risky for the country. She was one of several at the party who found the candidates' finger-pointing annoying.

"I'm still very, very undecided," she said. "It's like they're blaming each other and not giving us the true facts."

The gathering was spawned by Aragon de Chavez, the ex-wife of the city's three-term mayor, Martin J. Chavez. During their 17-year marriage, Aragon de Chavez grew accustomed to running in political circles and meeting candidates at fancy fundraisers. After their divorce in 2003, she felt disenfranchised.

In her former life, Aragon de Chavez on Tuesday would have attended an up-to-$12,300-per-person fundraiser/debate-watching party across town that featured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and her husband.

"It's humbling not to be the wife of the mayor," said the 49-year-old single mother of two, who said politicians pay little attention to ordinary voters.

"A lot of people in my situation, just average working Americans, don't really feel the process has included us," she said. So Aragon de Chavez came up with the idea of "Smart Parties," gatherings where undecided voters watch the debates and then have civil discussions about the candidates.

"I'm trying to empower people," she said. "The information needs to come from themselves, not from rumors and innuendoes about the candidates . . . or 30-second sound bites."

The ground rules are simple: The gatherings should be small, about a dozen or so people of varying political leanings. Post-debate discussions must be respectful.

"There should be food, of course!" she wrote in a document detailing the "Smart Party" concept.

Aragon de Chavez held her first party the night of the first presidential debate, inviting friends, neighbors and co-workers. On Tuesday night, half a dozen similar gatherings took place around New Mexico.

Her motivation is not solely to increase political discourse; she, too, needs to decide how to vote. A Democrat and a staunch Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter in the primaries, Aragon de Chavez remains undecided between Democrat Obama and Republican McCain.

"I haven't done the crossover as easily as some people have," she said.

At the end of Tuesday's debate, Aragon de Chavez spoke glowingly of McCain's independent streak but said she was still undecided. "I want more information," she said.

She was not alone, even if others at the gathering found their positions hardened.

Attorney Robert Araya, a registered Democrat, was already leaning toward McCain. He said his decision was solidified by what he saw as Obama's "divisiveness" and misrepresentation of the facts on his tax plan.

Araya said he was "part of that class of people who seemed to be demonized consistently by Obama."

"We're the bad guys," he said. "This candidate who is supposed to be uniting is dividing."

Dominic Aragon, 28, intently watched the debate, expecting to nod his head with his fellow Democrat. Instead, he found himself murmuring, "That's a solution," when John McCain outlined his proposal to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

"I was leaning toward Obama, but the devil's really in the details," said the University of New Mexico student, who is now considering voting for McCain. "In the debate, [Obama] really only answered one question. What I got from McCain was intricate details. . . . He was giving me solutions instead of pointing fingers."

Hostess Aragon de Chavez's daughter, Martinique, a political science student at the University of New Mexico, disagreed, to a point. The 18-year-old came to the party heavily leaning toward McCain in her first presidential election. Obama, she felt, "was all talk and didn't have any experience."

But during the debate, she said, Obama "connected more to the issues that I am worried about," particularly the economy. "It's scary," she said.

"I'm more confused than ever," she added.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World