Undecideds Hold Great Sway in Critical Va.

By Anita Kumar and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

RICHMOND, Oct. 14 -- Robert Shobe, who spent almost three decades in the Navy before settling down in Virginia Beach, will not decide whom to vote for until the presidential candidates get more specific about their foreign policy.

Frieda Hanshew, who lives in southwest Virginia, expects to base her decision on who has the better plan to resolve the ongoing financial crisis. And Ann Moody, an administrative assistant who lives south of Richmond, wants to hear the candidates talk about how they will provide health care to those who can't afford it.

Three weeks before the Nov. 4 election, some voters in the increasingly important battleground state of Virginia are still agonizing over whether to cast their ballot for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Many of those undecided Virginians are planning to watch the final presidential debate Wednesday night in search of answers. They are looking at each candidate's stance on key issues, the way he behaves and the way one treats the other.

"I want to know what they are going to do for the everyday person," said Rebecca Taggert, 32, a working mother of three in Norfolk. "How about all the regular Joes who are trying their hardest? What are they going to do for them?"

Taggert, a manager at an insurance company, has seen customers forced to cancel their policies in recent months. Some have lost their homes. Others own their homes outright but can't afford to pay for insurance anymore.

She usually votes for Democrats, but this year she said she does not feel totally comfortable with Obama and wants to hear more from both candidates on the Iraq war, abortion and especially the economy before she settles on her candidate.

This year, members of both parties think that Virginia could be critical to either candidate's capturing the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the White House. Virginians do not register by party, and many have been known to split their tickets.

No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Virginia since 1964, but recent polls show Obama and McCain locked in an extremely competitive race. A Washington Post-ABC News poll late last month indicated that Virginia's likely voters are divided 49 percent for Obama and 46 percent for McCain. The margin of error was four percentage points.

Janice Rollins, 43, a teacher at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, said she wants to hear McCain and Obama talk in more detail about family values and how to provide children with a safe, nurturing environment at home so they can succeed in school.

Rollins, who has a 14-year-old daughter, said she has been waiting for the last debate to make her decision because of its focus on domestic issues.

Those who remain undecided in the presidential race hail from all corners of the state, are of different ages and a variety of backgrounds. Moody, 62, of Dinwiddie County said she will be following closely what McCain and Obama say as well as their body language. She is looking for a gracious candidate who refuses to engage in name-calling.

"There are not many statesmen left," she said.

By far the most important issue to undecided voters interviewed is the national economic turmoil and the federal government's multimillion-dollar rescue plan. Some voters watched the two previous presidential debates, but with the financial situation changing daily, they are seeking more information on where McCain and Obama stand before they make a decision.

"The economy, it's killing everybody," said Hanshew, 60, of Bland County.

Elizabeth Coffey, 88, lives in Virginia Beach on a fixed income. She said she is starting to "lose faith" in McCain and Obama and has concerns about both candidates' economic plans.

She said she is worried that Obama will take money from those who have it and give it to those who do not, while McCain just has "too much money." His policies will skew too heavily in favor of the wealthy, she said.

"I want somebody who sounds like they have both feet on the ground and not leaning to one group of people," Coffey said.

Roger Stowe, 57, an auto mechanic in Patrick County who has supported both Democrats and Republicans in the past, will watch the third debate to get a "glimmer of hope" from either candidate on the economy.

Some Virginia voters said they have started to lean toward one candidate, but they hope the debate puts them at ease and confirms for them that they are making the right choice.

Gustavo Diaz, 49, a temporary worker in Newport News, said he usually supports Democrats, and this year he is leaning toward Obama. But he wants to hear what the Illinois senator has to say about the economy and health care to confirm that he is making the right choice. "We need some new blood," he said.

Laurie Hawes, a corporate meeting planner in Leesburg and a self-described Democrat, remains undecided but does not plan to watch the debate.

"I just really find the debates difficult to watch -- all the hype about it," Hawes said. "I'm doing some reading and talking with my husband. . . . What I do when I get behind the curtain, I'll decide when I get there."

Staff writer Michael Birnbaum and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report from Washington.

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