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Speech Fails to Sway These Undecideds

By Peter Slevin and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 4, 2004; Page A01

CLAYTON, Mo., Sept. 3 -- Half a dozen undecided voters who gathered here to watch President Bush's acceptance speech made it clear before he took the podium that they had serious doubts about his leadership and his political choices. After listening to 62 minutes of carefully crafted oratory, Christopher A. Jackson found himself leaning ever so slightly the president's way.

But, then, after listing all that bothered him about the speech, Jackson announced that he still wasn't sure.


In Goffstown, N.H., St. Anselm College students absorb President Bush's message. The candidate who wins the state will claim four electoral votes. (Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)

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"I honestly don't trust the guy," said Jackson, 41, a businessman and registered independent.

In Goffstown, N.H., Kate Tullgren, 18, said she was undecided and might vote for Bush. Yet she greeted the speech with whispered sarcasm and scowls of incredulity. When Bush mentioned judicial appointments, she said, "What about Roe v. Wade, buddy?"

In Las Cruces, N.M., government professor Jose Z. Garcia, 59, said of his dilemma, "Bush lost me when we went into Iraq, and Kerry has never really grabbed me." He thinks come Election Day that he will choose between Democratic challenger John F. Kerry and third-party candidate Ralph Nader.

The reactions of undecided voters in three battleground states who agreed to watch Bush's convention speech with Washington Post reporters suggest that Bush still has work to do to win their allegiance. Some expressed skepticism about portions of the speech, and others found themselves nodding in agreement with some of the president's comments. But none said that the president had overcome their doubts in his nationally televised address.

No group in America is more coveted by the two major presidential campaigns this year than undecided voters. Because the race is so close in so many states, and because an unusually high percentage of voters say they have already made firm decisions, the undecideds are being studied by campaign strategists from every angle.

Bush seemed to score highest among the Missouri voters when he was most personal. His self-deprecating comments about butchering the English language and walking with a Texas swagger drew laughter and knowing nods. That section of the speech was the easiest to listen to, they said, and it spoke to some of their worries about him.

"Unlike Kerry for me . . . Bush is more a regular guy," said Jackson, an African American who served eight years in the Air Force. "He came across fairly genuinely."

Other parts of the speech did little to stir the group, an unscientifically selected group of three men and three women with voting histories that meandered between Republican and Democratic. What they eventually decide could matter. Every year since 1900, except 1956, Missouri delivered its electoral votes to the winning presidential candidate.

As she watched Bush's upbeat assessment of his tenure and his riff on the "transformational power of liberty," Corinne Richardson, 66, said she could not escape the idea that much was left unsaid -- an understanding that almost 1,000 U.S. service members have died in Iraq, for example, or a commitment to the environment.

"I just have this gut feeling that we're in a mess right now, no matter what area you're talking about," said Richardson, a retired lawyer and registered Republican. "I really am concerned about civil rights, about who's going to be on the Supreme Court. Think of how he went into Iraq. We didn't even have a plan."

Linda Wheatley, 59, a retired elementary school counselor, said she wished Bush would move beyond concepts to details. When he said his next administration would remake "fundamental systems" of government to make Americans "truly free to make your own choices and pursue your own dreams," she asked in an aside, "Yeah, what does that mean?"

Wheatley did like the suggestion that small businesses, such as her husband's law office, could band together to get better insurance rates, but she opposes the creation of private investment accounts for retirement funds: "Too many people don't know what they're doing."

Paul Stanis, 22, felt just as unsure after the speech as before.

"I thought he spoke really well. I just don't know if I believe him," said Stanis, a doctoral student at Washington University in St. Louis who changed his voter registration from his native Indiana to Missouri because the race is so close. "One speech isn't going to sell me on a vote."

In New Hampshire . . .

About 40 students gathered in the cafeteria of St. Anselm College in Goffstown (not far from Kerry's home state of Massachusetts) to watch the president's address. In a room where walls were plastered with campaign posters dating to the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reactions ranged from hearty applause to eye-rolling sighs.

Few said the address helped them make up their minds.

Before the speech, Chris Thomas, 18, an independent leaning toward delivering his first-ever vote to Bush, drew a chart on a piece of lined paper. At the top he wrote "me" on one side and "Bush" on the other. He then listed areas he deemed important. As Bush spoke, he filled in the blanks.

"I don't feel comfortable with anyone other than me in office, to tell you the truth," the first-year student from Amherst, N.H., said afterward, pointing out red tabs affixed to his chart that signaled areas on which he disagrees with the president. "But you should see my Kerry sheet.

"Look, I wanted to hear Bush give a better defense of unilateral military action in Iraq and I didn't want all that gay-marriage stuff. That's not the government's role. But I knew what I was getting, even before he started speaking."

Adam Schibley, 19, of Lebanon, N.H., voted for Kerry in the state's January primary but is still making up his mind about November.

"Both conventions have been convincing and pretty powerful, but I think they are too much about the past and not enough about what the candidates are going to do if they win," he said before Bush spoke. Afterward, he said he thought the president's self-deprecation made him seem "more likable."

"I was looking for him to acknowledge that the war in Iraq was costing American lives, and he did that. I was looking for him to talk about issues that are important to college students, and he did that, but not enough," Schibley said. "I didn't like how negative the Republican convention was. It seemed like Kerry made an effort not to smear Bush, but that didn't happen here. Why can't they just point out differences and move on?"

Tullgren, from Milford, N.H., said she was undecided, but it was hard to tell from her reactions to the speech. She howled at Bush's Spanish accent, and she responded to Bush's religious references by muttering, "This is not a crusade." Occasionally, she simply told his image on the television screen to "shut up."

"Yeah, I don't agree with a lot of what I heard, but that doesn't mean I won't vote for him," Tullgren said. "At least you know where things stand with Bush. With Kerry you sort of feel like he's trying to be the popular guy with the guitar, the snowboarding and everything. I don't know what he's all about."

. . . and in New Mexico

At the beginning of Bush's address, New Mexico State University professor Garcia was undecided. By the end he remained so, although he had largely eliminated the president from contention. At his home in Las Cruces, a dozen registered voters reflected several slices of New Mexico's cross-cutting political history.

Among them were conservative Democrats who vote Republican, Hispanics who have voted Democratic and Republican, and Garcia. He feels lukewarm toward Kerry, favors Nader's position on campaign finance, and strongly dislikes Bush's policies on Iraq and taxes.

When the president said "government should try to help people improve their lives, not run their lives," Tim Henderson, 47, a Democrat who owns a real estate company, nodded his approval. "He's solid," Henderson said of Bush.

But Bush's pledge to train American workers to "compete with anyone, anywhere in the world" prompted Mary Tucker, 69, a Democrat who voted for Bush in 2000 to say: "We do already. We're just not cheap."

When Bush spoke his one line in Spanish -- "No dejaremos a ningun niño atras: We will leave no child behind" -- he drew snickers.

"They think we sell ourselves so easy, with their poor enunciation and poor pronunciation," said Tina Padilla-King, 64, a retired school and government administrator. Garcia challenged her, referring to Kerry's propensity for Spanish one-liners, "You're talking about both sides, aren't you?"

"Of course," she answered.

Finer reported from Goffstown. Staff writer Sylvia Moreno in Las Cruces contributed to this report.


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