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Stuck on The Fence

Weighing Acceptance Speeches by Bush & Kerry, Undecided Voters Reject Much of What They Hear

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2004; Page C01


A warning to the presidential candidates seeking to court swing voters: This election year, some swing voters are swinging back.

As evidence, consider 10 uncommitted voters who live in this battleground city in this battleground state. Pulled together in a focus group, they were in a decidedly contrary mood after hearing both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry accept their parties' presidential nominations.

The 10 swing voters in Erie, Pa., watch President Bush address the Republican convention. Few minds were made up afterward. (Richard Morin -- The Washington Post)

In the next two months, these voters want the candidates to drop the flags, fireworks and florid freedom talk -- we're onto that game. Lose the negativity. More specifics, fewer ads -- and more debates.

And please: Beginning right now, start talking about something other than 9/11 and Iraq.

"They can't stop talking about it," complained Sarita Mohar, 23, a part-time teacher and first-time voter. "I am just sick of it."

"Address some of those issues other than the war on terrorism and . . . Iraq," said Bryan Miraszek, 38, a stay-at-home dad.

"I don't want to see four more years of 'Let's fight terrorism, let's fight the war,' " said Rick Dudek, 45, a truck mechanic. "You have to start taking care of other business here."

"The economy is so bad. If we are such a great country, why don't we stay and help us? . . . Take care of us for a change," pleaded Cathy Filipowski, 35, a dental assistant. These swing voters understand the importance of the war on terrorism and the gravity of the bloody crisis in Iraq. But they also see every day the abandoned buildings, for-sale signs on the houses and cracked, uneven sidewalks along 12th Street and elsewhere in this predominantly Catholic working-class community. They see a crowded emergency room at St. Vincent hospital, and the three recently shuttered public health clinics in the poorest parts of town. They see a municipality increasingly strapped for cash, but they take comfort that their city, the third largest in Pennsylvania, is merely in trouble and not in crisis, as is Pittsburgh, 120 miles to the south.

And they see a campaign that, at best, has paid lip service to the issues that affect them more directly than either Iraq or terrorism. So they remain on the sidelines, confused, conflicted and bored.

A Tough Town

The port city of Erie, population 103,717, is located in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania on the shore of Lake Erie. Buffalo is 90 miles to the east. Cleveland is 100 miles to the west. Canada is just over the watery horizon to the north. Erie's municipal Web site brags that it is the "127th safest American city," and no less an authority than Field & Stream magazine rated Erie among the top 20 family fishing spots in the nation. Ann. B. Davis, the housekeeper on "The Brady Bunch," grew up in Erie. Bob Hope reportedly was married here.

In the past 20 years, Erie has been making a successful but difficult transition from a city that makes things to a city that caters to the leisure-time interests of tourists who flock to Lake Erie, most notably to nearby Presque Isle State Park.

The city proper is largely Democratic; the surrounding suburbs largely Republican. Bill Clinton won here in 1992 and 1996, but George Bush took the metropolitan area by a single percentage point four years ago. Bush's homeland security czar, Tom Ridge, represented Erie in the House of Representatives for six terms. Two days after he accepted the Republican presidential nomination last week, George Bush, with wife Laura and twins Jenna and Barbara in tow, journeyed by bus to the city; state Democrats promised that John Kerry would not be far behind.

The 10 Erie residents who gathered in front of a television in a spare meeting room of a research firm a few miles south of downtown were drawn from the ranks of the American majority. Like most Americans, all 10 said they were not particularly interested in politics. Like most Americans, none of these voters identified strongly with either major political party.

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