Carmen Waters, a 50-year-old computer project manager, said Vice President Gore needed to do more than accept the Democratic presidential nomination when he spoke Thursday night. He needed to introduce himself to voters like her. "I don't know anything about him," she said.
For Waters and nine other uncommitted voters who gathered in this comfortable Chicago suburb to watch Gore deliver his acceptance speech, the Democratic presidential candidate met his biggest challenge. While the Democrats believe the vice president has the advantage over Republican George W. Bush on the issues that appeal to swing voters, Gore has needed to connect personally with voters in a way that will make it easier for him to engage in what could be a tough and negative fight over the issues.
"Mission accomplished," said Ronald Boettger, a 58-year-old manufacturing engineer. "I think he did a good job."
"He came out from the shadow of [President] Clinton, and he needed to do that," Waters said. "I saw leadership qualities in him."
"He opened up a lot," said Keiona Jones, 21. "I see why he and Tipper are together."
The four Democrats, four independents and two Republicans generally gave Gore good marks for style and substance. On issue after issue, they spoke approvingly of his plans. But they also wanted more specifics, and some were concerned that targeting his policies toward certain groups over others could prove divisive.
No group of 10 voters can speak for the 25 percent of the electorate who have yet to firmly commit to either Bush or Gore. But their insights can help to identify and clarify the challenges that each candidate confronts as he attempts to win these persuadable voters.
Gore's education proposals got good to mixed reviews here. Jones, who just started graduate school, liked what she heard about helping working families send their children to college. And she strongly endorsed Gore's plan for universal preschool. "Children need to learn how to work in groups, and if you want people to get off welfare, then they have to work and they need adequate child care," she said. "So preschool offers so many things."
But others recoiled at Gore's flat opposition to vouchers. "I did not like it when he would not even give vouchers a chance," said John Walsh, 70, a retired printer. "His vice president [Connecticut Sen. Joseph I.] Lieberman was all for them. So was Colin Powell. It would be different if we had a beautiful school system, but it is not. You have got to try something a little new."
Gore's health care proposals also drew favorable if cautious reviews from these voters. His plan to cover prescription drugs under Medicare was particularly appealing to Lori Vega, a 43-year-old customer service representative. She and her husband caught her mother-in-law breaking her pills in half "so they would last longer, when she was supposed to take a whole pill."
But Walsh wondered if Gore's plan would duplicate state programs, such as the Illinois program that covers his medication.
The group watching the speech on television cheered with delegates when Gore went after managed-care providers. But again, some wondered if the cure might not be worse than the disease.
"I don't see how you can have an administrator in the health care operation making medical decisions," said David Ryan, 67, a small businessman. "That is practicing medicine without a license, exactly what he said." But he wondered "how you can do that without getting the long arm of the government involved, the government which does not have a really good record in running programs and being successful and having an inexpensive bureaucracy."
These voters seemed ambivalent toward Gore's promises for a modest tax cut for working Americans. "They have to say it," agreed Graham. "We expect it and they give it to us."
And like many voters nationally, these 10 voters expressed no great appetite for a tax cut. "Don't even give us the money back," Summers said. "Just put it towards programs and put it towards keeping Social Security. . . . Put it towards something good instead of giving us back a couple of bucks a year."
"I am all for getting the debt down; I think that is more important than the large tax cut," Walsh said.
"Besides," Ryan added, "Gore can't embrace large tax cuts. I heard an awful lot of places where he is going to double and triple and put a lot of money in, and I wonder what kind of surpluses will be left when they get through with all of these programs he is talking about."
And Gore's repeated vows to fight for working class families disturbed some in the group.
"There is a little bit of Lenin in here--you hear this 'us against them,' " Ryan said. "It is setting up a conflict. . . . I think it is a little bit of a false issue, and it can create division more than it can unify."
"He is definitely just dividing the parties," said Patrick Summers, 23, a mental health counselor. "The working people like the Democrats, and the Republicans are big rich people that own businesses and stuff, which I don't think is really true."
But Fannie Graham, 55, saw it not as a declaration of class war, but as an invitation to the underclass to join in the political process. "I think what he is trying to do is make everybody feel a part of it," said Graham, who works for the state human services department. "Even if you don't have a big campaign contribution . . . you do have the vote, and it is appreciated."
These voters seemed mildly puzzled by Gore's priorities, which included making campaign finance reform the first bill he would send to Congress. When asked if a campaign finance bill would be the first legislation they would send to the Hill, only Walsh's hand went up. And even his support came with a caveat.
"Gore and Clinton were really bending the campaign finance laws real bad, so it is sort of ironic and hypocritical for them to make a statement, but I do agree with what he's saying," Walsh said. "The money is undermining our government."
Some wondered if Gore hadn't promised too much. "He promised a lot of things," cautioned Yolanda Treiber, 63, a retired payroll clerk. "It all sounded very good, but I am going to listen and hear what Bush has to say."
Gore did receive some praise for the country's economic strength. Walsh said that Clinton and Gore "did a good job, so they can claim some of the credit." But he added: "So can the Republican Congress. So can [Federal Reserve Chairman Alan] Greenspan. He probably deserves more credit than anybody."
Others don't think any vice president can impact the national economy. "The vice president is sort of the groom's mother at the wedding. You wear beige, you stand in the background," Ryan said. "So I don't think Gore deserves any credit for this. . . . His constitutional job gave him no responsibilities in that area."
But if Gore didn't always receive credit for Clinton's successes, neither did this group of swing voters blame him for Clinton's failures.
Walsh believes Gore went too far in his defense of the president during impeachment. "But he is not responsible for what Clinton did," Walsh said. "I think [Gore] is a good moral man myself." Others said it would have been disloyal for Gore to have criticized Clinton. "I think it would be a travesty if he would speak against [Clinton]," Graham said.
Neither were some of these Chicagoans pleased to hear the Lewinsky scandal was back in the news this week. "That whole thing is so out of hand," said Vega.
Lieberman--whose critique of Clinton's morality has become an important subtext of Gore's campaign message--was an unknown to many in the group, but a plus to those who did know of him. "When he picked Lieberman as his vice president, my opinion of Gore went up," Walsh said.
At the end of 2 1/2 hours, these voters agreed that Gore's speech had improved the chances they would vote for him.
"He did not convince me tonight, but I got a chance to see another side of him," said Graham. "It is enough to make me really pay attention to something he is offering or see what else he is going to say."