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Missouri voters favor none of the above

In the opening stages of the presidential campaign in this habitual battleground state, the news for President Bush is far from encouraging. For his Democratic challenger, John F. Kerry, it's even worse.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In the opening stages of the presidential campaign in this habitual battleground state, the news for President Bush is far from encouraging. For his Democratic challenger, John F. Kerry, it's even worse.

The escalating death toll in Iraq has elevated concerns about the U.S. commitment there, with voters unsettled by their fear that Bush has no plan for success and frustrated by their conviction that there may be no alternative but to stay the course.

At home, a sense of anxiety remains over the strength of the economic recovery, the loss of manufacturing jobs and the export of American jobs to overseas. "I was not scared five years ago," said Judy Bierman, 50, a homemaker who learned recently that a 50-year-old friend was about to be laid off. "Now it's scary; it's scary all the time."

The apprehensions over war and the economy represent clear obstacles in the president's path to reelection and an opening for Kerry. But the Massachusetts senator has problems of his own. At this point, he is barely part of the political conversation, particularly among the relatively small percentage of voters who have not picked sides.

Many voters know little about Kerry or what he would do to fix the economy or Iraq. There are signs that the Bush campaign's effort to paint Kerry as a man of few firm convictions has begun to stick. First impressions of Kerry are not particularly positive: He is seen as "boring" and "aloof," a somewhat frosty New Englander with an affected air.

The Washington Post convened two groups of voters on a recent evening in the St. Louis suburbs, one comprising people who were generally optimistic about the economy, the other comprising people who were generally pessimistic. Most said they had not made up their minds on the presidential race.

The two groups, totaling 18 people, do not constitute a scientific sample of the Missouri electorate, but their opinions closely parallel what The Post and other news organizations have found in recent national polls, and their animated conversations provided a greater understanding of the challenges confronting both candidates.

Anguish over Iraq
Four years ago, Bush narrowly won Missouri over Al Gore, continuing the state's near-perfect record of voting for the winner in presidential elections, and both sides see another hard-fought campaign for the state's 11 electoral votes.

Already they are being barraged by television commercials from the Bush and Kerry campaigns and from independent Democratic groups, and Bush's visit on Opening Day of the baseball season did not go unnoticed. "He threw a strike," Bierman said.

But one of the president's ads, which showed flag-draped remains being removed from Ground Zero, sparked a negative reaction from some who described it as out of line, which in turn prompted others to defend Bush. "It was a defining moment," said Gary Frimel, 48, a self-employed investment manager.

Iraq produced the most anguished discussion, with dismay that the conditions there have turned so ugly and that the United States faces even greater isolation around the world. There is clear disagreement over whether Bush has a plan that can succeed.

"I can hardly stand to listen to the news," said Jane Coughlin, 50, a paralegal. "It's deaths every morning. I force myself to listen to it. I'm not that concerned about the economy, but I'm obsessed with the war."

Bush's most vehement critics offered harsh assessments. Patrick Dunsford, 39, a computer technician, accused Bush of taking the country to war "to divert attention away from his failing economic package." Others said the president had offered shifting rationales for going to war. Elijah Hill, 70, a retired policeman, called Bush "a cowboy" who "lacks sophistication" and "really doesn't understand world politics."

More pervasive was the feeling that, while going to war to remove Saddam Hussein from power was worth it, getting out will be messier and far more costly in U.S. lives than expected. "The war was over a long time ago," said Sue Koppel, 46, an organizational psychologist. "What are we still doing in there, and why are there so many casualties?"

Bush's recent news conference failed to satisfy those looking for a plan to accomplish the U.S. goals of stabilizing Iraq and turning power over to the Iraqis. "I wanted to hear what his plan was," said Ruth Rozen, 70, a retired fundraiser.

Bush's defenders disputed that view. "I do believe Bush has a plan," said Shakira Franklin, 30, a project manager for an electrical firm. "The American public and maybe the international public may not agree with some of the moves that they're making, but I think that they're making moves that they think are appropriate."

Even Bush's sharpest critics saw no way the United States could count on a quick exit from Iraq, however much they favored that. "You can't leave," said Hill, who an hour earlier had burst out, "Bring the troops home."

Susan Phillips, 48, an architectural representative, said she has friends with families in Iraq who are "thrilled" to have Hussein gone. "But I have the same feelings of some other people here, that I think something needs to be done to actually transfer the power. And of course, that's the $64,000 question. How the heck do we do that?"

Mixed indicators
The economy produced less consensus. The participants described two economies, based on their experiences: one for those with secure and good-paying jobs and the other under continuing pressure, with job creation slow and insecurity high.

Coughlin, for example, was as upbeat about the economy as she was downbeat about Iraq. "We have no job concerns," she said. "My friends are all working. All the kids are starting to graduate from college." Asked whether she gives Bush credit, she replied, "Yep!"

George Manoli, 29, a drugstore operator described his relatively recession-proof business, while Greg Conklin, 40, a county employee, said he feels secure and that friends in the construction business are doing well. "Everyone I know is out there working," he said.

But through other prisms, the economy appeared far less rosy. After Coughlin offered her assessment, Angela Jones, 39, who works in a university accounting office, responded, "She's one who has money; she's fine. Someone who has an average income may be struggling. . . . I know someone who just got laid off on Friday."

Phillips said jobs "have been disappearing for a long time. The only thing we had on our side were service jobs, and we are now losing the service jobs, so I think that's a very scary situation." One of nine children, she added, "We're all in our fifties or older, and two of the nine are out of work."

Jan Sova, 52, works in the home furnishings business and complained about the loss of jobs to overseas competition. "Everything I'm seeing is being shipped over from China now, and it really upsets me that I know people who have been laid off because their job is no longer there, because it is in China."

Given the mixed indicators they are seeing -- more economic growth but slow job creation -- even some of the optimists expressed caution. "It is better," Rozen said, "but I think it has a long way to go."

Iraq and the economy represent political trouble for Bush, and although he had several ardent defenders among the two groups, overall the reviews on his first term were mixed.

Negative impressions
Bierman said she was surprised to discover that her husband and brothers, past Bush supporters, were disinclined to vote for his reelection. "I started to wonder why, and basically because the war is dragging on, health care is still in the same spot it was six months ago," she said. "The economy is getting, creeping better, but Bush can't say, 'I did it.' "

Nor can Bush count on interest in other proposals to attract support. His plan for exploration of the moon and Mars drew outright ridicule. "I couldn't care less," Jones said. "I mean, we've got kids graduating that can't even spell Mars."

Yet when pushed to say how they would vote if the election were held now, Bush narrowly prevailed over Kerry in both groups, with several undecided. The reason has much more to do with Kerry than Bush. Kerry has other problems to deal with before he can take advantage of the president's problems.

Bush has relentlessly attacked Kerry in his television ads, seeking to portray his challenger as soft on defense, lacking in core convictions and willing to say what he thinks people want to hear. Kerry, in turn, has repeatedly attacked Bush on Iraq and the economy, charging that Bush has been too stubborn to reach out to the rest of the world and that he has but one policy for the economy: tax cuts that are tilted heavily toward the wealthy.

Kerry advisers believe that public concerns about Iraq and the economy eventually will give their candidate a boost, but it was clear from what the focus group participants said that Kerry has other work to do first.

Phillips said she attended a Kerry event in Florida this year and came away unimpressed. "He gave a great speech, but who isn't going to say, 'I want a chicken in every pot, I want every kid to get a college education.' I mean, I started laughing in the middle of the speech. . . . I want somebody to get in there and tell me what it is they're going to actually do."

"I read recently that he's going to have 500,000 jobs in the first six months of being in office, or words to that effect," said Kate Wolfe, 63, who is unemployed. "Well, where are those jobs coming from?"

"I'd like to know more, where he stands on stuff," Conklin said.

But beyond the hunger for information were negative impressions.

"I hear what Kerry is saying, but he's not attractive to me at this point," said Samuel Ansari, 55, a baker.

Brice Evans, 44, a letter carrier, said, "I think Missouri would go Democratic, but I don't think they like Kerry that much. . . . I think he'll get eaten alive when it comes to a one-on-one debate with Bush."

These Missourians suggested that Kerry's New England roots would not translate well in the Midwest. "I've worked with people primarily from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and they just have an air of arrogance about them," said Dunsford, who was perhaps Bush's toughest critic in either group.

Chris Behnen, 25, a college student, said he had recently seen a videotape of Kerry from his days as an antiwar protester. "He had this accent from when he was speaking that I don't necessarily hear in his voice now," he said, "and there was just something about it that just came off as very arrogant."

"He's so busy talking about what Bush isn't doing," Jones said, "that it's hard to know what he's going to do."