Undecided Voters Want Bush to Offer Specifics

When the president steps up to the podium, they expect to hear answers on Iraq, jobs.

August 30, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

President Bush has some explaining to do.

When he steps on stage at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night to accept the Republican Party's presidential nomination, swing voters say, they want to know how he plans to lower gas prices, make healthcare more affordable and create jobs.

America's shrinking cadre of crucial undecided voters say they want to hear Bush promise that he won't touch Social Security funds to pay for something else. They want him to describe how he'll get rid of the national debt. But most of all, they say, they want to know how he plans to extricate U.S. forces from ongoing combat in Iraq.

"We have soldiers dying every day. One thing I learned in the military is you have to have an exit plan," said Terry Eaton, 50, a paramedic training officer in San Antonio. "One of the things George Bush didn't have was a way to get out.... I want to hear what his goals are for Iraq."

Unlike rival John F. Kerry, whose job at the Democratic National Convention last month was largely to tell America who he is, Bush's challenge at the Republican convention is to tell undecided voters what he plans to do in his second term if they help him stay in office.

A Times poll last week showed that only 5% of the electorate is unsure of whom to vote for Nov. 2 -- down from 7% a month ago.

These are the men and women whom both parties are spending millions of dollars to woo, the ones who could make a big difference in an election as close as this one promises to be. In the days leading up to this week's Republican convention, The Times convened by telephone a focus group of swing voters, identified through the poll, to hear more about their concerns.

On the plus side for Bush, most of those interviewed said they think he has done a relatively good job in his first four years. And they take into account the Sept. 11 attacks when looking at the president's progress on improving the economy.

"I feel like Bush has had to deal with a lot," said Sharon Heuerman, 38, a nurse from suburban St. Louis. "We had to rebound from a huge event, and that makes a big difference in the economy."

Still, understanding has its limits when the cost of living rises faster than voters' paychecks.

Charlotte Stone, a nurse's aide and registered Republican from the central Missouri town of Crocker, said she was worse off than when she voted for Bush in 2000. She had $3,000 in the bank back then. Today, her savings have dwindled to $300.

She'd like to go back to school and become a nurse or a massage therapist. But she can't afford to quit her job to pursue her studies.

Kerry has yet to win her over, but Bush, she complained, doesn't understand how Americans are struggling.

"I had money saved, but the price of gas went up," said Stone, 50, who grosses about $14,000 per year. "People here live on $10,000 a year, and we have to drive. We're trying to afford health insurance and 401(k) plans. We want to pay our way. But we can't do it much longer, the way things are going."

Stone said she'll tune in to the convention in New York City, listening for a Republican plan to ease gas prices and a job-training program for older workers.

"I think he's been an excellent president," Stone said of Bush. "But with the economy and the gas prices, there are people out there who can't afford him."

Judi Williams, a retired schoolteacher from Beloit, Wis., was waiting to hear a Bush strategy that would make healthcare more affordable. She's 60, living on a fixed income and being treated for lung cancer.

Two weeks ago, she needed an injection to combat her low white blood-cell count -- a side effect of chemotherapy. A single shot, she said, cost $436. Although it was covered by her insurance, Williams was aghast at the cost and blames the president, because he's taken campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry.

She talked about going to the drugstore and seeing elderly people pick up hundred-dollar prescriptions. And she described a friend with rheumatoid arthritis whose insurance won't cover her $1,200 monthly bill for Embril, the only medication that improves her painful condition.

"If I know two people with this problem, how many more are there? And yet we're still spending billions of dollars in Iraq?" fumed Williams.

"Don't tell me, 'I'm going to improve healthcare.' Tell me how you're going to improve healthcare and is it feasible and can it be done," Williams said.

Frustration with the cost of America's involvement in Iraq -- along with a growing feeling that the country probably shouldn't have gone to war -- was a recurring theme among these undecided voters.

Even those who voted for Bush in 2000 said their biggest fear was that the war in Iraq would develop into another Vietnam.

Eaton, the paramedic training officer, said Bush "talks about bringing troops home, but I have friends who are being called up to the National Guard for two years."

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