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Kerry's Convention Speech Leaves the Undecided Swayed, Not Smitten

July 31, 2004|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — If Sen. John F. Kerry gained ground among the uncommitted after four days of spectacle and urgent speeches at the Democratic convention in Boston, he had yet to seal the deal, a sample of undecided voters indicated Friday during interviews across the country.

The forceful tone of Kerry's acceptance speech -- on points such as involving foreign allies in Iraq and protecting American jobs from outsourcing -- made a strong impression on eight randomly selected registered voters. The undecided group spans the American mainland from rural central Florida to a small Pacific coast town in Washington state.

But weeks of television ads from President Bush's campaign accusing Kerry of flip-flopping in Senate votes have also left a mark. Though the voters said they were now leaning more toward the Massachusetts senator, most were still wary of his reputation for hedging his bets.

In southeast Ohio, Muskingum County schoolteacher Connie Hilty said she was taken with Kerry's talk of "getting more healthcare for people who aren't covered." But she added she still needs convincing. And although former Marine and Persian Gulf War veteran Rick Broxton feels Kerry "is moving in the right direction" by insisting that world allies are needed to help stabilize Iraq, the central Pennsylvanian wants to see "more proof" that Kerry's ringing phrases are not empty campaign slogans.

All the voters, who were among the 7% of Americans who told a recent Times poll that they were uncertain about their votes in the November presidential election, said they viewed favorably Kerry's Thursday night speech. Most said they had inched closer toward him, and several said his convention performance had erased doubts about his credibility.

But only Alabama retiree Annie Hurdle said she was now firmly in the Kerry camp. "I am voting for that man!" she blared into the telephone from her Greensboro home. "He usually sounds kind of boring. But he was pronouncing those words so good, I have to go with him now all the way."

Hurdle, a former teacher who says she has voted Democratic as long as she can remember, had been unsure about Kerry because she "just didn't know that much about him."

But Kerry's decision to speak before the NAACP convention in mid-July in Philadelphia -- after Bush spurned the group -- led her to consider him more seriously.

"When he started talking about protecting Social Security last night, he didn't have to say any more," Hurdle said. At 69, subsisting on a monthly government stipend of $939, she worries about paying her electric bill and sometimes puts off doctor's visits for her chronic diabetes to save money.

When Kerry told of meeting a Canton, Ohio, steelworker who "saw his job sent overseas and the equipment in his factory literally unbolted, crated up and shipped thousands of miles away," the anecdote struck home with Hilty. She cites a local basket company that eliminated 60 jobs by outsourcing to China. And she echoes Kerry's outcry about a healthcare gap, telling how she worried when her son and daughter went without coverage.

Even though her son, Army Reserve Sgt. Daniel Hilty, is now stationed in Iraq, Hilty defends Bush's decision to invade.

"They had a crazy person killing his own people and threatening us," she said.

She intends to read more about Bush's and Kerry's stances before she commits: "A politician can make numbers say whatever he wants them to say."

In Ashley, a northeast Pennsylvania town near Wilkes-Barre, Maureen Frutchey liked what Kerry said about job protection. In an interview last week, Frutchey said she worried about her family's future in the uncertain job climate and said she sought a candidate who offered hope.

A disabled candy factory worker, Frutchey, 39, came away from Kerry's speech thinking that "he's really looking out for the American workers."

Kerry's promises to tackle soaring health insurance rates also resounded.

"My father's cutting his pills in half sometimes to save money," Frutchey said. "Nobody's parent should have to do that."

Still, she said, Kerry has "flip-flopped so much in the past, I still have to give Bush that little chance, even if he's really started out in a deep hole for me."

In Brooksville, Fla., tractor repairman Joe Moragues, 57, said he "needs more persuasion" about Kerry.

"But on the economic deal," Moragues said, "he's right on target. The country is losing too many jobs. This little county here is desperate. They're trying all kinds of incentives to bring business in, but they run into what's happening everywhere. Big business is giving up on America."

In central Pennsylvania, Broxton took careful measure of the graying Navy Swift boat crewmen who sat applauding behind Kerry as the candidate questioned Bush's Iraq policy and his efforts on terrorism. Broxton, 46, who has voted Republican in recent presidential elections, said he could relate to the bitterness Kerry voiced after returning home from the Vietnam War.

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