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Undecided credit Kerry for strong debates

Undecided voters watching the presidential debates tended to give higher marks to Sen. Kerry than to President Bush, but many are still undecided about who to vote for.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Persuadable voters watching the presidential debates tended to give higher marks to Democrat John Kerry than President Bush, but many sound reluctant to make a final decision in the presidential race.

“In the debates, Kerry’s intelligence came through. He just seemed really thoughtful,” said Mindy Kershner of San Francisco, who is still not ready to commit. “I probably won’t decide until I actually vote.”

The three presidential debates, including the final one Wednesday night, have not answered questions some of these voters still have about the candidates.

Undecided Maryland voter Thomas Cox said: “Kerry is too liberal and Bush is too conservative and never the train shall meet. We should have ’neither of the above’ and try it again.”

About one in five voters are persuadable, according to AP-Ipsos polling. This includes about 5 percent undecided and another 15 percent who are leaning toward a candidate but haven’t made a final decision.

For those persuadable voters who tuned in, the debates offered an extensive look at the two leading presidential candidates.

For 83-year-old Dorothy Van Asdale, of Yuma, Ariz., the debates offered a firsthand look at a Democratic candidate she knew about mostly through the narrative of conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.

“I listen to Rush Limbaugh when I’m in my car,” she said. “We can only get one radio station really clear around here. It’s so negative. I never heard a good thing about Kerry.”

But when she tuned in to the presidential debates, she “liked Kerry’s presence. I liked the way he spoke.”

A CBS News poll of 211 persuadable voters after the debates found many liked what they heard from the Democrat. Asked who won the debate, 39 percent of the persuadable voters said Kerry, 25 percent said Bush and 36 percent said they tied. The number of voters who thought Kerry has clear positions on the issues, doubled after the debate to six in 10. Women were more likely than men in the CBS News poll to give Kerry high marks. The CBS poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 7 percentage points.

In two other post-debate polls, Kerry was judged the winner in the CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll and Bush and Kerry were tied in an ABC News poll. It may be several days before national and state polls offer more of a long range picture.

Michele Janka, 53, of Great Falls, Va., said she was leaning toward Kerry but now she’s undecided again because “Kerry has too many big spending plans.”

“If President Bush would fire Mr. (Paul) Wolfowitz and Mr. (Douglas) Feith, I would vote for him. They have hijacked his foreign policy,” the businesswoman said, referring to Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense, and Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy.

“The debates were really a lot of rhetoric,” said Kenneth Whitman, a 63-year-old resident of La Follette, Tenn., who leans towards Bush. “I don’t think they really explain a whole lot to the public one way or another. I think what will do it will be just gut feeling when we get right down to the election.”

For some in this voter group, long-range concerns override debate results.

“Really, it boils down to one thing for me personally. I feel more comfortable with Bush at this particular time,” said Wayne Moser, 64, of Washington Crossing, Pa., “Kerry scares me because of his legislative record. Kerry’s got to win me over and he didn’t.”