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Undecided voters lean toward Obama

Sayre

Sayre

For one batch of Tampa Bay swing voters, John McCain has already lost.

Two months ago, the undecided voters convened for a focus group at the St. Petersburg Times were decidedly antagonistic toward Barack Obama and in several cases leaning toward McCain. Today, just one of the 11 voters is backing McCain, nine expect to vote for Obama, and one remains torn.

Sarah Palin did most of the work of pushing them to the Democrat, but Obama also has managed to ease their doubts.

"I've felt for a long time that the Republican Party has been captured by people who are too far (in) the extremes — the religious right, the neo-cons. I had great hopes that I could see in McCain somebody who was different. I don't see that anymore,'' said Republican retired military officer Donn Spegal, 80, of Tierra Verde.

"You want several things out of a president, and I think Obama has potential. Intelligence is the first one, obvious love of country and dedication. He must be a pragmatist. We haven't had enough pragmatism, and I think Obama shows that."

Polls indicate a neck-and-neck race for Florida's 27 electoral votes, so this randomly selected group of formerly undecided voters is not necessarily a signal of which way Florida will tilt. But over three sessions of informal discussions about the election, many of the participants took remarkably similar journeys to reaching the conclusion that Obama was their candidate.

Widespread antagonism toward Obama in mid August gave way in September to overwhelming horror over McCain picking Palin as his vice presidential nominee. At the last session last week, most were scoffing at McCain's constant talk of Joe the Plumber, still calling Palin unqualified, divisive and grating, and acknowledging that Obama has grown on them.

"The first meeting, I was absolutely against Barack Obama, up one side and down the other. He was too young, he was too inexperienced. By the second one (after Palin joined the ticket), it was like, whoa, I don't know what I'm going to do now,'' said Annette Kocsis, a 68-year-old Democrat from Clearwater, who no longer worries so much about a President Obama.

"I think he's a more thoughtful person, more analytical than McCain,'' she said. "I feel that if he's in there, he's going to get advisers. … I'm hopeful that he'll get people who will talk back to him and say, 'You know, that's not the right thing to do.' And I just feel like that's the kind of people he'll have around him."

Temple Terrace Democrat Rhonda Laris, 53, also said she favored McCain originally but came to grips with her discomfort over voting for a presidential candidate younger than her. She also said she can't stomach Palin in the White House.

"And No. 3, Hillary asked me to vote for Obama,'' said Laris, a loan officer and formerly strong Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter who said even if Clinton's heart isn't behind Obama, her endorsement meant something.

Laris' interest in traveling abroad also helped move her to Obama: "I want the world to like us again."

After hours spent talking politics together, these voters had come to know one another reasonably well and sense one another's apparent leanings. So when Republican Mark Sayre, 50, of St. Petersburg declared he would vote for Obama, the room erupted in gasps. For Sayre — one of the group's only Palin fans — the final debate clinched it.

"I'm a very good judge of character. I've sold everything from newspapers to used cars,'' said Sayre, who concluded Obama has more integrity than McCain. "Basically, you just looked at these two and you trusted Obama. I was looking at their character. I was watching them — movements, hand gestures, face. You can tell."

Republican former professor Jim Soltis of Holiday, the lone McCain supporter, said he had initially leaned toward Obama but ultimately concluded among other things that Obama lacked the necessary experience and depth on foreign policy, and had too many controversial associations in his background. Soltis referred to the community organizing group ACORN, and suggested a President Obama could be taking advice from 1960s radical Bill Ayers.

Soltis, 70, cited Clinton's campaign ad questioning whether voters would want Obama answering the red phone at 3 a.m. when an international crisis erupts.

"I think a big difference would be, McCain would get out the six-shooter while Obama's going to pick up the phone and call somebody and ask them what they thought,'' responded Oldsmar Democrat Carlos Gonzalez, 70, another former Clinton supporter who has warmed up to Obama.

Independent Riverview voter Tom Gerhart, 66, had shared Soltis' strong concerns about Obama's background, but now intends to vote for Obama anyway.

"I don't know that I'm any less uncomfortable about the associations, but I think I have developed more respect for Obama's more positive associations, I guess,'' said Gerhart, a retired consultant and IBM staffer. "The man's very bright, and I don't think I appreciated that as much as I do now."

Republican Philinia Lehr, a stay-at-home mother in Largo, acknowledged her likely vote for Obama will be unenthusiastic.

She is skeptical about his plans to expand access to health insurance, and with her husband earning more than $250,000 a year, she would see her taxes rise under Obama's plans. At the same time, she thinks tax relief for middle-class families probably makes more sense than concentrating tax relief on the wealthiest Americans.

"Do I really want to (pay higher taxes)? No,'' said Lehr, 37. "But it's like a marriage. It's give and take. You have to say, 'Okay, this is what we have to do. We have to stand up. We're in a major crisis. We all need to do something.' "

Soltis, the only McCain voter, left the meeting with some parting advice to his fellow voters: Remember 1948, he said, referring to Harry Truman's stunning upset over Thomas Dewey.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

The Undecideds

The Times has been following a group of undecided voters since August. Here's where they stand as Election Day approaches:

Likely supporting Obama

• Democrat Annette Kocsis, 68, of Clearwater, retired secretary.

• Democrat Rhonda Laris, 53, of Temple Terrace, loan officer.

• Republican Philinia Lehr, 37, of Largo, homemaker.

• Republican Mark Sayre, 50, of St. Petersburg.

• Democrat Annette Maakestad, 57, of St. Petersburg.

• Republican Donn Spegal, 80, of Tierra Verde, retired military officer-teacher.

• Independent Tom Gerhart, 66, of Riverview, retired consultant.

• Independent Bill Chever, 56, of St. Petersburg, retired Air Force.

Democrat Carlos Gonzalez, 70, of Oldsmar, retired from career in higher education.

Supporting McCain

• Republican Jim Soltis, 70, of Holiday, former professor.

Still undecided

• Democrat Rebecca Montilla, 22, of Tampa, premed student at USF.

Undecided voters lean toward Obama 10/21/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 24, 2008 6:15pm]

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