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Since the Democratic convention, most national and swing state polls have shown President Barack Obama taking a small but tangible lead over Mitt Romney.
But a night spent listening to a dozen uncertain voters in this upscale Virginia suburb provided a fascinating insight into the thinking of a small but potentially decisive group. Many said they were disillusioned with Obama but not yet convinced Romney would do better, indicating that the president’s advantage remains tenuous and this long, bitter battle is far from decided.
“They’re anguishing because neither candidate fills what they want,” said Peter Hart, the veteran Democratic pollster who conducted the focus group for the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
The Monday session took place before the video surfaced in which Romney dismissed nearly half of the electorate as firmly for Obama because they don’t pay income taxes, “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.”
Pamela Zacha, 64, a Reston, Va., communications director who backed McCain in 2008, called Obama “overconfident and unrealistic.” But she said, “there’s still a part of me that wants to give him more of a chance,” adding she hasn’t seen a specific Romney economic plan and considers him weak on foreign policy.
“I’m hoping … that somebody is going to pull something really incredible out of the air,” she said, adding her decision “is going to be emotional, based on something they say that rings true.”
Mary Barker, 60, a retired Fairfax Station school principal, voted for Obama four years ago but said he “promised more than he delivered,” adding, that is why “I’m not as much in favor of him as I was.” She praised Romney’s “work ethic” and “business acumen.”
But she said Romney hasn’t provided enough specifics, criticized his refusal to release more tax returns and said women’s issues could affect her decision.
“It’s just really hard for me to decide,” she said.
Some Romney voters seemed firm. “When the economy is down … the best thing to do is not to go to a politician from Chicago,” said Ben McIvor, 22 a Manassas geologist. “We should go to a guy that turned around businesses.”
But many Obama voters reluctantly backed him or considered Romney an unsuitable replacement.
“Obama’s got my support as the lesser of two evils right now,” said David Penland, 34, a South Riding teacher who voted for Obama after backing McCain in the 2008 Republican primary.
“I was really hoping there would be a good alternative,” said A.J. Morning, 41, a Springfield computer technician and photographer. “But there’s not.”
Many expressed strong views about last week’s murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and Romney’s quick criticism of Obama. But they paralleled their voting inclinations.
Hart said the election depends on undecided voters such as Mary Barker and a woman in the Wisconsin focus group who lost her job, was disappointed with Obama, but was not yet ready to vote against him.
“If Barack Obama wins them, he’s going to win the election,” Hart said. “If he loses them, it’s going to be up for grabs.”
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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