After one of the longest and most unpredictable presidential campaigns, about eight in 10 voters have made up their minds between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.
It's the voters still squarely on the fence who could tip the neck-and-neck race either way. And to hear them tell it, the choice 80 days before Election Day is a confounding disappointment.
"I follow them very closely, and this is the most perplexing election," said Mark Sayre, a 49-year-old Republican from St. Petersburg. "John McCain has some good strong points, but he's not a great communicator. Barack Obama has good communications skills, but in some areas he's lacking. I've never waited this late to make my mind up on an election."
"It's really up for grabs. Nobody has said anything that impresses me, and I've been voting since I was 21," agreed 57-year-old Annette Maakestad, a disabled Democrat from St. Petersburg.
Last week, the St. Petersburg Timesconvened a group of nine undecided Tampa Bay voters for a free-wheeling discussion on the presidential election. Dutiful, well-informed and paying close attention to the campaigns, most of the voters in the focus group saw little to be excited about in either major candidate.
"I disagree with McCain on most of his issues, and I have the other one (Obama) where some of the things he says I agree with, but I don't trust him. I know nothing about him. He's never done anything," said Tom Gerhart, 66, a registered independent, retired consultant and IBM staffer from Riverview.
The participants will return to talk with the Times as the campaign progresses. Most predicted they would not be able to make up their minds until seeing the vice presidential picks, the nominating conventions and the debates.
"One thing that could sway me to one side or the other is for them to say, 'Here is my proposed Cabinet.' And are the right people around him? And would they be listened to? That would swing me," said Donn Spegal, 80, a lifelong Republican and retired military officer who acknowledged his profile makes him an unlikely undecided voter.
"I think the Republican Party has moved away from the old rock-ribbed Republicans. McCain should be a slam dunk (for me) - he's ex-military, he's a lifelong Republican. But his stance on the Iraq war is very troublesome to me," he said.
Republican Philinia Lehr, a 37-year-old mother of five from Largo, enthusiastically backed George W. Bush in 2004 because after Sept. 11 she felt safe with him. This year, new blood vs. experience has her torn.
The debates will be a key factor for Lehr, who is turned off by the "celebrity stuff" she sees with Obama.
"I like Obama because he appeals to me as being young, he seems not to be argumentative. ... But I don't know if that's all true," she said. "I would think, okay let's try something new because obviously George Bush isn't cutting it. But also we have a lot of strong issues like the war going on, and maybe we need someone like McCain. He does have history with war."
Notably in the focus group, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democratic nominee would have made a big difference. Four of the nine participants said they would have happily settled by now on her as their candidate, had she won the primary.
Race-related concerns are a significant undercurrent.
"Being our first black American candidate ... it opens up the door to the word of assassination, and it's scary. ... In the back of my mind that may have some play, because this country would be torn to shreds if that happened," said Republican Jim Soltis, 70, of Holiday, drawing agreement from several people sitting around the conference table.
Gerhart is troubled by some of Obama's associations, mentioning the Illinois senator's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, who was once honored by Obama's old church. He said he read Michelle Obama's Princeton University senior thesis about racial relations, and she makes him uneasy, too.
"I am positive today he could not get a top security clearance," Gerhart said of Obama. "If he went to Boeing Aircraft, I bet they couldn't hire him because of his associations."
There are serious doubts about McCain, too.
"I always thought John McCain was a Republican I could vote for until he did a few things," said Democrat Rhonda Laris, 53, of Temple Terrace, recounting McCain attacking John Kerry four years ago.
"And I just don't know enough about Barack Obama," said the loan officer who quipped that she's tempted to write in Clinton's name on the ballot. "There's just not enough information. I'm so stumped about what to do right now. ... There are things about both of them I like, but just not enough to say you're my man."
Clearwater Democrat Annette Kocsis, 68, is uneasy about McCain's health.
"I'm not as old as John McCain, but I know some days it's a struggle to get up and get motivated. With the weight of the world he's got to be a whole lot better prepared staminawise than I could ever dream of being. But by the same token Obama doesn't have the experience," she said. "I don't hear anything that convinces me that I want either one at this point in time."
For all the talk about a massive-turnout election with voters so energized, this group of undecided voters hears plenty of others equally ambivalent about the McCain vs. Obama question.
"When I talked about coming to this panel most of the people that I talked to said, 'We don't plan on voting at all,'" said Kocsis. "They're like, 'I wouldn't have either one of them on a bet.'"
"I'm hearing that more from Republican friends than I am from Democrats," said Spegal.
But none of these voters will sit out the election. They just need more time to size up the choices.
Times political editor Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.
First in a series
The Times is following a group of undecided voters as Election Day 2008 approaches. Look for future accounts of their decisionmaking. In addition to those pictured individually, here are the other members of our focus group:
- Democrat Annette Kocsis, 68, of Clearwater, retired secretary.
- Democrat Rhonda Laris, 53, of Temple Terrace, loan officer.
- Republican Jim Soltis of Holiday, 70, former professor.
- Independent Peggy Stone, 28, of St. Petersburg, hotel worker.