Her two small grandchildren spilled onto her lap. Her cat Zazuu was manically trying to squeeze into the room through the gap at the bottom of the closed door. Her chocolate Labrador, Ripley, moved about her den sniffing legs. Through it all, undecided voter Robin Riner, her face lit brightly by an aquarium in which tiny fish danced, did not take her eyes off the TV screen. These days she intently listens for anything that might open a window on to President Obama or Mitt Romney, neither of whom is yet clear for her. Now, she studied the convention speeches of two Republicans she recognized, Ann Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Riner, who lives in Manassas, takes her undecided status seriously. “If you want to know who’s going to be the best candidate, you gotta listen to everything,” she said.
She knew that all of the things she saw on the Republicans’ convention stage were chiefly meant for her and the other Robin Riners out there, those relatively few Americans voters who have yet to make up their minds. The Republicans’ flashing national debt sign. The stage’s changing screen behind the speakers, which at this moment was a fairy-tale sky blue, with floating cloudlike wisps, very serene, very dreamy, very “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” All of it was meant to win over people like her. “We’re going to be the ones to decide,” she happily observed.
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It was Night 1 of three days of Republican convention watching, and Riner lounged barefoot in her La-Z-Boy recliner, the same one from which she watches her beloved Washington Redskins. When anyone scores points anywhere in life, Riner likes to celebrate. “There you go, there it is,” she exulted when Christie delivered a line about fiscal discipline that she liked, sounding exactly like the rabid sports fan she is.
A self-identified independent who works as a supermarket bakery manager, Riner has eclectic political tastes that defy ideological labels. Mostly, she likes passionate people. She admires conservative firebrand Rick Santorum and liberal television commentator Rachel Maddow. She voted for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (“Bill could sell me oceanfront property in Arizona”). A married mother of four, she voted for John McCain in 2008, yet this time Obama has a serious chance for her vote in part because of Obama’s health-care overhaul, particularly the section that has provided health coverage for her 22-year-old daughter, Katy, under Riner’s insurance plan. “But I worry about the deficit,” she said. “It’s way too big. So I gotta listen to this.”
By then, the 51-year-old Riner had endured a slew of speechifying Republicans whose names and words she forgot virtually the instant they left the convention stage: New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval; former Democratic Alabama congressman turned Democratic-antagonist Artur Davis; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Riner kept doggedly watching all that night and well into Night 2, when she suddenly experienced convention overload. She had to get away. While TV viewers listened to points that included charges that Obama planned to siphon from Medicare to pay for Obamacare, a political version of the fox storming the hen house, Riner went out into her back yard to check on her chicken coop. Foxes had raided it, literally: Three of her five chickens were gone, with scattered white feathers serving as stark evidence of how, and in which direction, the chickens had been dragged off into the adjoining woods.