Independents Are Courted Aggressively

The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates make a final appeal to voters before the "Potomac Primaries" of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. on Feb. 12, 2008.
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

Bob Mosely is not tethered to a party. The Newport News father of five calls himself an independent. He twice voted for President Bush. Now he's deciding between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Virginia voters do not register by party, and voters who show up Tuesday can choose which primary to take part in.

After one of his young daughters became seriously ill, Mosely, an evangelical pastor, started carefully listening to what politicians had to say about health care. His family has struggled financially, and navigating the system was "not a good experience, on top of your daughter having cancer," he said. He likes what he hears from Democrat Obama about making health insurance affordable for everyone.

But Mosely, who grew up in a military family, also respects the Arizona Republican's principled stand on the Iraq war, even though he thinks the U.S. effort is unrealistic and heartbreaking. "You know what he's going to do -- stay the course. I'm not thrilled with that idea. But I'm a little bit impressed. That's the unpopular position. To me, that's . . . John McCain," he said.

Mosely, 51, is taking the final days before the primary to make his decision. He's relying on the Web, e-mail alerts, his gut and on God: "I'm going to be saying, 'God help me to make a good decision about this. . . . I want to impact my country for good, and I don't want to throw my vote away.' "

The mind of Virginia's independent voter is a place where party labels, and sometimes certainty itself, are suspect. It's also the rare place where participants in the political process readily volunteer that they might be wrong as they make complex and often deeply felt calculations. What Virginia independent voters decide tomorrow -- even which primary they vote in -- could be a bellwether for November.

Conversations in recent days with voters across the state who identified themselves as independent demonstrated deep anger over the war, a concern about the economy and an absence of broad affection for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). The independents who are struggling between Obama and McCain point to a dynamic that could have broad implications for the November general election.

"You win or lose Virginia almost every time based on who wins the independent vote," said Ray Allen Jr., a Republican strategist who has advised candidates in numerous statewide races. "There's not enough Republicans to win the state without independents. There's not enough Democrats to win the state without independents. There just isn't."

Democratic and Republican strategists count on 20 percent or more of Virginia voters being independents. In a Washington Post survey in October, 34 percent of registered voters identified themselves as independent. In the 2004 Democratic primaries, self-identified independents made up 22 percent of all Democratic primary voters, and in 2000, they made up 29 percent of all Republican primary voters.

Both parties are aggressively courting independents, although McCain's success in knocking out most of his rivals has focused more attention on the Democratic contest. "We're open for business, and we would encourage you to come on over to our side, and one of the ways to do that is put your toes in the water," said Virginia Democratic Party Chairman C. Richard Cranwell. "We'll see if we can move you over to the blue dance floor."

Some independents bend to extremes to avoid being tagged with one of the worst labels imaginable: predictable. Take Gabrielle Robinson, 35, a church administrative assistant who lives outside the northwestern Virginia city of Harrisonburg, who doesn't want a female president.

"They'll probably come after me with pitchforks for even saying such a thing," said Robinson, a former supporter of Democrat John Edwards, who dropped out of the race last month. But she has her eyes on the United States' terrorist foes. "I just think we need a strong male leader for the country right now. I'm not saying it would never be okay for a woman to be president, but not at this time. . . . We would not be as threatening to them, maybe, if we had a woman president," she said.

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