ST. LOUIS, Oct. 8 -- They were sitting on the fence before the debate, and after 90 minutes of lively and detailed discussion, they were moved. But only a little.
Some of the 140 people who were selected as audience members for Friday night's presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis said they learned more about the issues, and how the candidates stood on them, from the experience. Most said they gained newfound respect for President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry. Yet judging by this small group, the second debate did little to influence how they will vote in 3 1/2 weeks.
"I'm still undecided," said Pamela Walter, a public relations executive from nearby Clayton, Mo. "There weren't many direct answers to the things I cared about: the war, stem cell research."
"I thought it was a wonderful opportunity," said Elizabeth "Libby" Long, a nurse who asked Kerry whether it would "be wise" to harvest stem cells without destroying an embryo. "But I still don't know who I'm going to vote for."
The 140 panelists selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates looked like America. There were homemakers and salesmen, students and teachers. They were black and white, male and female, young and old, thin and heavy. Mostly, however, they were supposed to represent the dwindling group of people who are still, less than four weeks before Election Day, neither firmly red nor blue. As the race tightens, this block seems destined to be the difference on Nov. 2.
Those selected through random calls by the Gallup Organization were treated like a sequestered jury or maybe the panelists of a particularly important game show. The identities of audience members were kept secret from the media. The group assembled in the morning at a suburban Radisson Hotel and stayed there until the debate, out of sight. They could socialize but only with one another.
Once the event began, they were permitted to read their questions from index cards if called on by the moderator, ABC's Charles Gibson. When they finished, their microphones were turned off. Most of the time they sat like respectful students, observing Gibson's pre-debate admonition not to applaud or react in any way.
They walked out of the chilly gymnasium tonight a bit dazzled by the experience but coldly sober about its implications. "I thought the first part of the debate just rehashed the first debate [in Miami last week] too much," said Blaine Christiansen, a Washington University graduate student. "I don't think this debate did a whole lot to change many minds." Christiansen said he was leaning toward Kerry beforehand and still is, "but I'm still not 100 percent decided."
Some walked away disappointed that the ground rules permitted only a handful of questions, equally balanced. Matthew Cummock, 20, another Washington University student, came prepared to ask Bush a challenging question about terrorism but never got the chance. Cummock is able to speak from a unique perspective: his father, John, was killed in the 1998 bombing of Pam Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The son was 4 at the time.
The format was designed to encourage a certain casualness -- or at least the illusion of it. Both candidates often rose from their stools and strolled the red-carpeted stage while responding to questions. Bush occasionally turned his back on the moderator and the main body of the audience to address questioners seated behind him. Despite the strolls, neither man came too close to the other. Debate rules prevented the candidates from crossing a line marked in tape on the floor, a legacy of the 2000 debate when Democrat Al Gore walked ominously close to Bush.
Interviewed in the long corridor outside the gym, several participants said the format did not make them see either man in a new light.
"I was undecided," said Rosemary Nagy, a health care worker from St. Louis. "I still am. I'll probably vote for Bush."
She smiled, and her voice trailed off. It did not sound like a ringing endorsement.