Brian Foldery wanted specific plans from John F. Kerry in the third presidential debate, not another recitation of the things President Bush has done wrong. After 90 minutes Wednesday night, the 29-year-old insulation salesman was impressed. Kerry had some good detail, he thought, when he talked about what to do with the budget deficit.
Still, something was missing. When Foldery listens to Kerry, somehow the Democratic nominee just never fully connects.
There was that wisecrack about how he had "married up" to his heiress wife. Foldery thought it was "smug," not funny. And he cringed when Kerry mentioned that Vice President Cheney's daughter is a lesbian. Why bring her into it? Hanging over all this was Kerry's demeanor, which reminds him of that of a recent college graduate who thinks he has all the answers.
"In a way, I would kind of like to vote for Kerry," said Foldery, a remarkable statement from a man who always has voted Republican. "But I just don't know, because I still don't know that I can fully trust him."
So there Foldery was at the end of three hard-hitting presidential debates, a bird so rare in this year's polarized electorate that he qualifies for the political endangered species list: He plans to vote on Nov. 2, but still does not know for whom.
He was among half a dozen voters -- some neutral, some leaning toward one candidate, none having made a choice -- who agreed to watch the final debate and share comments afterward in a Washington Post focus group. For these voters, the third debate did not offer "Aha!" moments but did ratify trends that began with the first two encounters.
The debates cumulatively illuminated Kerry's strengths -- a command of facts, a steady bearing, an ability to frame an argument -- in ways that left participants more inclined toward him. But his polished performances did not dispense with his main weakness: a personality that even the most sympathetic participants agreed was at best awkward, at worst annoying.
The debates, at least for these voters, just as clearly illuminated Bush's weaknesses. Several viewers were eager to hear what he had to say about jobs, and found the evasion glaring when he immediately pivoted to what sounded like a prepackaged answer on education. Everyone seemed to agree that the debate format is hardly natural for Bush. But none of these weaknesses managed to erode what these people regard as the president's core strength, which is that he is a leader who strikes them as decisive and on the level.
Even the participant most hostile to Bush believed that what you see with the president is what you get. His comments about his religious faith, for instance, struck people as genuine and appealing, as did his comments about how he had been influenced by the powerful women in his life.
"I'd love to have a beer with George Bush," Mark Vaught said before the debate. Afterward, the 57-year-old, who stopped practicing law after having major heart surgery a year ago, had not changed his mind: "I don't think the man is dishonest. I think he's honorable, but I just have a hard time seeing him be equal to the task. And I was looking for something tonight that would persuade me of that, and I didn't see it."
People in a focus group of this kind -- conducted in an office park in a suburb of Minneapolis, in a state that remains a battleground -- represent only themselves. The wide-ranging conversation did not have predictive value in any scientific way. Still, the comments were suggestive of the idiosyncratic ways -- a mix of personal and political -- the debates echoed among engaged but ambivalent voters targeted by both candidates in a dead-heat election.
Before the debate these viewers had all registered concerns about policy, with terrorism and the quality and cost of health care topping the list. Several people said they wanted to hear substance, not attacks, although voters rarely admit to wanting to hear more negativity. In the end, however, the participants kept returning to the candidates' personal attributes. Some of these attributes are proving to be a critical hurdle for both candidates.
For Mary Lou Anderson, who came in leaning Kerry and left even more so, her choice is informed by instinct. With an apologetic laugh, she says of Bush, "I wish I hadn't watched so much 'Saturday Night Live'!"
But she cannot help but think of the show's comedic skits when she watches Bush debate. "It colors my feelings about the man, it does," said Anderson, who lives in the St. Paul suburb of Eagan and works as a media assistant for a school district. "Because he has done some stupid things, and he has said some stupid things. . . . And the next thing you know, you're looking at the man, and you're saying to yourself: buffoon."
Referring to the proverbial "deer in the headlights," Anderson launched into an impersonation of Bush -- eyes slightly bulged, lids blinking nervously -- in those seemingly frozen moments when he collected his thoughts before answering a question.
Across the table sat Sandy Cohn. The lifelong Democrat, whose father was a friend of former vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, said she hoped Kerry might give her a reason to stay with her party, even while her comments all suggested she is rooting for Bush. She does not so much dispute Anderson's appraisal of Bush's debating skills as dismisses its significance.
"He might not be the brightest guy in the world, but he's tough, and he's gonna protect us," she said before the debate. As long as we're being candid, Cohn allowed, people might say something similar about her: "I'm just an average person, not super-intelligent. But I stand by my convictions."
Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, Cohn said, she has seen Bush as she sees herself -- a bond that was not weakened by an occasional fumbling answer but was strengthened when she heard him talk about his values or his determination to protect the country. "My gut tells me it has to be Bush," she said. "I just feel that he's sincere. I [recall] how he made me feel on 9/11. I mean, I was scared out of my mind. And he just made me feel that, Sandy, it'll be okay."
Her feelings made her protective. She muttered dismissively several times during the debate, such as when Kerry hit Bush on topic such as the nation's shortage of influenza vaccine and allegedly underfunding Pell education grants, which Bush denied.
In an evening of conflicting claims, Dale Noby, 63, a part-time worker for a suburban parks department, said he repeatedly found himself thinking, "Well, now, who's telling the truth here?"
How, Noby asked, is he supposed to know? Such ambivalence tilted him even more toward Bush, on the theory that he may not be perfect but that at least he is a known commodity whose instincts generally strike him as sound.
But the barrage of charge and counter-charge is starting to lose impact with these voters, in ways that may hurt Bush's ability to take a negative tack against Kerry in the closing days. In Wednesday's debate, for instance, Bush put greater emphasis on Kerry's liberalism, and said Kerry's voting record means that "Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts."
This drew chuckles from the group, but no more. Noby and Foldery both said they would be concerned if they really thought Kerry was far to the left, but regarded Bush's one-liner as the kind of thing politicians always say.
This skepticism about whether they were being spoken to candidly left participants relying on something they do trust: their intuition. Danette Quam, who is leaning toward Bush, said Kerry's formality and distance leaves her anxious, and, while she could imagine Bush at her dinner table, she jokingly described the reaction she would have if she learned the Democrat was coming: "I think I'd be like a little nervous and did I put the right linens on the table and did I put the forks in the right spot."
Even Vaught, who said he is almost certain he will vote for Kerry, agreed the Democrat is "stilted," but said he does not care. "I don't think there'll be a time during these four years in office, if he's elected, where I'm invited to sit in the Oval Office and discuss football with him. So I'm not really very worried about whether I personally like him."
Among this group, the key to Kerry increasing the comfort level would be fewer attempts at humor or references to family, but continued emphasis on what several viewed as his authentic strength: a willingness to engage issues with factual specifics, rather than the rhetorical generalities they heard from Bush.
Anderson came to the evening believing Kerry might have "wonderful intentions," but she had many doubts about whether he could really achieve them. She left, she said, with fewer doubts and a greater tilt toward the Democrat. She liked his plans, which she had never heard before, for cutting tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas. "I did not know that," she said. "So, in a way, he answered a number of questions."