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Fence-sitters inch to McCain

Six of 14 undecided Pennsylvania voters said the debate made them more likely to vote Republican.

September 27, 2008|Josh Drobnyk | Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, PA. — To a small cross section of crucial voters gathered in this presidential battleground, Friday's debate provided a slight boost for Republican John McCain but left him and Democrat Barack Obama with much to do to sway fence-sitters in the next five weeks.

More than a dozen undecided voters gathered Friday night at Muhlenberg College, a small liberal arts school in eastern Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, a region traditionally coveted by presidential candidates because of its high concentration of swing voters.

Six of the 14 voters said they were more likely to vote for McCain after the 90-minute session, and four said the same of Obama. Four said they remained unswayed.

Bruce Glazier, a registered Republican from Upper Macungie Township who has voted Democratic in the last two elections, said he was leaning more strongly toward McCain.

"McCain seemed a little more polished," said Glazier, who works in credit and collections. "He really unflapped [Obama] quite a few times." He declined to cite an example. "I just felt Obama lost it. He is not as believable as McCain."

Lynn Koehler, a 53-year-old registered Democrat from Lower Saucon Township, was undecided about whom to vote for before the debate. Afterward, she said she was leaning "slightly more" toward Obama, "because of how thoughtful he was," she said. "He definitely seemed to know more than I thought."

All 14 voters assembled by Muhlenberg College's Institute of Public Opinion were self-described undecided voters. Nine were registered Democrats, five were registered Republicans. They recorded their immediate reactions to the candidates' responses using number keypads, rating their answers on a scale of 1 through 5.

Christopher Borick, the institute's director, said it provided an unscientific glimpse into how fence-sitters in a crucial region viewed the first head-to-head of the general election.

The voters remained mostly silent as they watched the debate on a big-screen TV, rarely showing emotion even during the few times when the audience at the University of Mississippi reacted.

Afterward, five said they thought McCain had won the debate, versus two for Obama. The rest said neither scored a victory.

On the individual answers, neither candidate appeared to hold much of an upper hand among the group, roughly half of whom regularly scored answers above average for each candidate.

Still, both candidates had their moments.

On their responses to the proposed $700-billion bailout plan, McCain fared substantially better. Most in the group rated his response above average, while most scored Obama's answer average or below. Pressed by debate moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, McCain said he would support the plan, while Obama was noncommittal.

McCain also got high marks for his response to the conflict between Russia and Georgia, during which he described Obama's response as "naive" and called for a stronger defense of Georgia than Obama had proposed. "I do believe that we need to bolster our friends and allies," McCain said.

Sandi Teplitz, a Democrat from Allentown, said Obama appeared to be touching on talking points, while McCain seemed to answer the questions more pointedly. "McCain hit on more of the issues directly, and Obama veered," she said.

Obama scored his best review from voters when Lehrer asked what lessons each had learned from the war in Iraq. "We have to use our military wisely, and we did not use our military wisely in Iraq," he said. Eight of the 14 voters rated his answer either the "best possible," or above average.

Only five gave McCain a similar response for his answer to the same question: "The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not. The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave and what we leave behind."

Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes and a history of tight presidential contests, has long been a key battleground for candidates. This year has been no different, with both Obama and McCain pouring huge amounts of time and resources into the state since early June.

McCain, seeking to become the first Republican to win the state since 1988, has spent 15 days campaigning here in the last six months. Twice he's come to the Lehigh Valley.

Obama's campaign has opened more than 70 offices statewide and has helped Democrats nearly double their registration advantage over Republicans -- to 1.1 million -- since 2004.

A Muhlenberg College daily tracking poll Friday showed Obama holding a 5-point edge in the state. Most other recent polls have shown a similarly tight contest.

The debate was in doubt until early Friday. McCain announced the suspension of his campaign Wednesday and pressed to delay the debate until after an agreement on a financial bailout package was reached. But when no deal appeared close Friday morning, and with Obama already on his way to the University of Mississippi, the Arizona senator changed course.

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