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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

What's up with undecided voters?

Wafflers seem earnest and deliberative about the monumental decision ahead. They could tip the election.

October 31, 2008|Faye Fiore | Fiore is a Times staff writer.

Gloria Raymond has watched on cable the talking heads on the left and on the right. For a year she has listened to the news, tuned in to the debates and taken in the stump speeches so she could make a wise choice for president.

But with only four days left, this 72-year-old retired Bob Evans waitress from Tallahassee, Fla., remains one of the undecided voters whom Barack Obama and John McCain are desperately courting in key battleground states. As far as she's concerned, there is only one thing that would help her make up her mind.

"I'm waiting for one of them to shoot himself in the leg," she said, meaning the foot, which she would also like to see Democrat Obama or Republican McCain put in his mouth. "If one of them would do something that would make it so clear. . . . To tell you the truth, I feel the same about either one."

Raymond is one of a dwindling but crucial pack of voters who are both revered and reviled in the electoral system. They have been spotlighted on cable news shows, pandered to by the candidates and skewered on comedy television ("chronically insecure . . . attention-seekers . . . people who get their heads stuck in jars while eating pickles").

There is little research on undecided voters because they are an ever-changing population -- those who equivocate in one election cycle might not in another. A study of presidential elections at State University of New York at Buffalo found that the last time wafflers made a difference was 1960.

But this year, they look to be significant again. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll this week shows that this wavering wing of the electorate -- 6% in Florida and 8% in Ohio -- is large enough to make the difference in those battlegrounds.

The rest of the nation, minds made up and marching by the thousands to vote early, has begun to wonder: What's up with those people? They are, after all, faced with two starkly different men, from different generations, with different ideas, revealed and vetted in perhaps the longest campaign cycle ever.

Raymond and several others surveyed from Florida and Ohio explained their thinking in follow-up interviews this week, revealing an earnest if conflicted lot, deliberative by nature, particularly in decisions of consequence.

When it comes to dogs or her 2001 Ford Focus, Raymond, for example, tends to take a long time deciding.

"I have cats, but I love dogs, and I've been thinking about it like five years already if I should adopt a dog. It's a lot of responsibility and at my age I'm afraid to do it, but if I found a dog that's 10 years old so he doesn't live too much longer after me," she said. "And I want to buy another car because my car is old, but I keep thinking, if I just fix it . . ." (She did not hesitate, however, to say yes to her late husband of 50 years: "He swept me off my feet.")

Presidential elections don't always rise to the level of monumental decisions, but with two wars, a crippled economy and an energy crisis, this one does, and the undecided mind swings back and forth, amassing evidence, unwilling -- unable? -- to rush it.

Don Sayers, 48, of Liberty Center, Ohio, has lost one night's sleep (he allows that this might also have been caused by too much coffee). A union member and quality-control manager at an auto plant where everybody is for Obama, he says it's no fun being the odd man out.

The problem is this: The last candidate Sayers got excited about was Bill Clinton, whose wanton behavior let him down. "It's like he cheated on the country. It was traumatic. I don't want to be fooled again," Sayers said.

He never considered voting for Obama, who he believes will take away his hunting gun, even though Obama says he won't. The choice is between a third-party candidate and McCain, who has failed to impress Sayers, despite the fact that he lives 20 minutes from Joe Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber.

"Now maybe if McCain had a plumber's card," he mused, noting that the Arizona senator was born with "a silver spoon."

Sayers is researching on the Internet, listening to Rush Limbaugh and watching bits of the Sunday news shows before church. "I just don't trust politicians," he said.

Joyce Noland, 66, of Wilmington, Ohio, has the opposite problem. She thinks McCain and Obama are "both good men," and can't decide which one she likes more.

"I'm leaning McCain, but I think Obama is like a breath of fresh air," she said, having voted twice for George W. Bush. She thinks Obama's running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, is "a blowhard." But no matter what happens, she plans to wake up happy on Wednesday.

Many undecided voters say they are waiting for that "one thing" that will lift the fog. John Moore, 64, of Sarasota, Fla., found his just this week. Retired from a telecommunications company, he is a Republican who never liked McCain, and was tempted to stay home. Then it came to him -- the reason to vote: The Democrats could end up controlling Washington unchecked.

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