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McCain isn't a shoo-in in Sun City Center, a haven for ages 55 to 95.
Published Oct. 19, 2008

The sign over the woodworking shop says "Sawdust Engineers," and there was a time when the men now bent over the tools would put on neckties or make sales calls, building their pensions so they could one day leave the rat race for this warm world of unbroken sunshine.

"Retirement is the best!" says Jerry Decker, 73, one of the Sawdust Engineers.

But the tranquillity of palm trees and wine gatherings that sustained Decker's dreams all those years in the Delaware snow has been upended by the financial crisis. Even here in paradise, nothing is for sure anymore.

"Who isn't afraid of getting a 'Dear John' letter from GM saying your pension is in danger?" he asks. "You look at all these companies and what they are doing. We worked so hard to put them first, and it's just not right for them to be reneging."

The other men share the outrage, spitting out the names of corporations, their golden parachutes and lavish indulgences.

"I wasn't invited to the AIG spa weekend. Were you?" one asks aloud.

The Sawdust Engineers should be an easy sweep for John McCain. All five are Korean War veterans and registered Republicans. George W. Bush nailed every one of their votes. But three weeks before the election, only three of them were supporting the Republican presidential nominee.

Sun City Center, the over-55 retirement community of 19,000 outside Tampa, is in the hard-fought electoral quadrant known as the I-4 corridor, home to 43 percent of the state's voters. The Republican Party has always counted on the retirees here to deliver in bulk. But to win Florida this year, McCain must capture a bigger slice of older voters than President Bush won in 2004 to offset the high numbers of young voters supporting Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

It's easy to see why Decker wants more heat from a candidate when his own steady discipline is compared with the reckless indulgence of Wall Street. Decker brown-bagged his lunch, even when he went over to the corporate tower as a director of human resources for Formica Corp. His wife, Jeannie, was his barber. They and their son lived fully but frugally. For more than two decades Jeannie gave Jerry $25 each Friday for his weekly spending money.

"It wasn't a sacrifice," Decker says. "We had a game plan to spend our retirement together."

But the financial meltdown has jeopardized the game plan for many of their friends. Decker hears about the guys who took their company's advice and converted their pensions to 401(k) plans, only to watch their holdings halved when the market plunged. Foreclosure signs, once unthinkable, are popping up in the trim Bermuda grass.

"I still believe in our country," Decker says, "but Jeannie and I don't have time to rebound. When you are 72 and 73, you don't have time to recoup."

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Once a solid hub of conservative retirees from the Midwest, Sun City Center has in recent years been set upon by "liberal Northeasterners," says Dee Williams, president of the Sun City Center Republican Club since 1991. In other words, blue-staters.

The influx of Democrats and McCain's tepid campaigning has Williams shooting e-mails to the Florida Republican Party warning that her turf cannot be taken for granted.

"McCain is not bringing passion," says Williams, 80. "He has to convey to the public that what we are doing with the bailout, we had to do."

The same morning the Sawdust Engineers are in their wood shop, a group of women called the Weavers are at their looms elsewhere in the activities center expressing ambivalence about McCain.

"He's flat, he's old, he doesn't seem enthused," says Jane Bolder, 69, a registered independent who twice voted for Bush because of his tax policies. Voting for McCain, she says, would be a no-brainer had he picked Sen. Joe Lieberman as a running mate instead of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. "I can't imagine sending Palin, with her cliches, etc., to negotiate or meet with leaders of other countries."

Obama has struggled to capture older white voters, and Bolder epitomizes their hesitance. "He has pizazz, but he has a lot of plans to spend a lot of money," she says. "The health plan is more geared toward government control. He wants to raise capital gains taxes. Where is the money going to come from to pay for health care?"

To write off this population as a monolithic voting bloc is a mistake: Ages here range from 55 to 95. They TiVo, they download, and most important, they are inveterate consumers of information. The tanked economy has transcended their usual single-issue focus on health care or Social Security. They are worried about the country that is being passed on to their children and grandchildren.

"Our debt is in the trillions," Decker says. "Is this a nice legacy for our kids? We're worried about our granddaughter, the kind of medical care she'll have. Will there be a Social Security for her? Will there be pensions?"

The Deckers are better positioned than most. Eighteen months ago, when Jerry Decker noticed the country's debt shooting up and the glut of overpriced houses, he pulled their money from the stock market and invested in certificates of deposit and long-term annuities, preserving their retirement savings.

But a widow friend of theirs just learned that her husband's benefits plan with a Big Three automaker is dropping her medical coverage.

"Doggone it, this was the agreement at the start, that we'll take care of you," Decker says. "You didn't mind working for 35, 40 years because you say to your wife, 'Honey, we are going to get all of these things in retirement.'"