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Convention Helps Bush Gain Undecided Voters

Interviews among a small group show the message on steady leadership and the attacks on Kerry have solidified his standing.

September 04, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

Maybe it was the one-two punch of Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush, extolling the virtues of the man who wants to be president -- again. Maybe it was the lack of punching back by Sen. John F. Kerry, the target of increasing attacks at the Republican National Convention and in a barrage of broadcast ads.

Maybe it was the confluence of factors -- a good nominating convention for President Bush in New York and a bad month for his Democratic rival. Either way, Jackie Costa, a 36-year-old public relations account executive from suburban Milwaukee and heretofore undecided voter, has made up her mind.

"I think I know who I'm going to vote for," Costa said Friday, after following the Republican convention all week. "I think I'm going to vote for George Bush.... Hearing the good and positive things about George Bush has made me lean more toward him."

With its relentless reminders of Sept. 11 and some of the most aggressive speeches of the campaign, the Republican convention helped Bush solidify his standing as a steady leader who can help the country navigate a dangerous world, at least among a small group of undecided voters interviewed Friday. They were among the 5% of the electorate identified by a recent Times Poll as unsure about who to choose as president in November.

For most of them, Bush largely came across as forceful and consistent during the four-day nominating convention in New York, and the majority finished the week either considering a Republican vote in November or pretty firmly in the president's column.

In addition to the convention, which was capped by the president's acceptance speech Thursday night, the undecided voters said they also were nudged by a barrage of negative ads about Kerry. The combination left many of them with a sense that the Democratic candidate could not make up his mind about questions facing the nation.

Still, not all of them were sure about what they would do on election day. Arline Rosenzweig, a 70-year-old secretary for the Palm Beach, Fla., school board, said she watched the convention and it did nothing to help her make up her mind.

"I don't think it means a thing. Everybody talks a good storm," said the Boynton Beach resident, as Hurricane Frances approached her hometown. "But they'll only be able to do as much as Congress lets them.... Talk is cheap. I'm very undecided. I got till November, right?"

But the many comments during the virtual focus group Friday showed that this small corps of undecided voters could be shrinking even further, as Bush enjoys the traditional post-convention bounce.

However, the slow trek toward certainty didn't do much to ease the discomfort many said they felt before the convention about being on the fence. For some, the decision to vote for Bush came more from pained resignation than confidence that the Republican was the best person for the job.

"I guess we better put Bush in by default and hope things get turned around," said Charles Ryan Sr., a retired laboratory technician from Missouri, who a week ago was solidly undecided. "I'm voting for more of the same when I don't believe in it."

If "that makes me a hypocrite," said Ryan, 67, then so be it. What he'd really like to see is a candidate he does not think exists: "someone with Bush's charisma who can get programs through [Congress] and get us out of Iraq."

Listening to Bush give his acceptance speech, Ryan said he was overwhelmed by the size of the task in Iraq, worried by a sense that "terrorism is going to get worse and worse and worse" and left thinking that "Bush is the right guy to get in there because Kerry can't handle what Bush has created."

A week ago, Donald Peterson said he couldn't make up his mind about the election because Bush "leaves a lot to be desired." The retired traveling salesman was worried about the economy, about outsourcing and about whether Social Security funds would be tapped to help finance the war in Iraq.

On Friday, he said he had watched the convention and still "didn't hear anything about the economy" or a clear plan to get out of the war. Although he's still undecided, he said, "I'm starting to lean, probably the Bush way."

The 83-year-old from Rice Lake, Wis., described the convention as "kind of a rehash of what [Bush] did and what he expects to do." But he liked the line-up of speakers, and overall, said "it sure was exciting. We put on a good show, I'll tell you that."

What Peterson heard from the president, though, was a two-edged sword. Bush "sticks by his word," he said. "He's determined." That's the good part. On the other hand, he said of Iraq: "I don't believe in some of his tactics. He makes up his mind," and everyone else just has "to follow along."

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