- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry held their first debate last night, seeking to win over a dwindling number of undecided voters that pollsters say has shrunk to about 3 percent but that still could decide the outcome in the battleground states.

Democrats say if Mr. Kerry is to appeal to undecided voters, he must use these debates to speak to them much more aggressively on bedrock economic issues, while reassuring them that he will be tougher on terrorism, too.

In a memo to Democratic activists warning that the Massachusetts senator had lost support in some of his party’s base constituencies, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said the undecideds were “looking for a more intense engagement with Bush and stronger focus on domestic issues.”

Others, including white, college-educated women and labor-union households, want Mr. Kerry to offer a tougher plan for Iraq and demonstrate “greater evidence of personal strength and resolve against the terrorists.”

Mr. Greenberg said many undecided voters “who want to vote for change have not yet made the deal with Kerry. That includes some loyalist Democratic blocs, as well as real swing voters.”

Mr. Kerry, he added, “has not yet won the full confidence of these voters.”

Undecided voters have been a staple in past presidential elections in the final weeks of a campaign. But this time, they are becoming an increasingly hard commodity to find, and just how many remain has become a source of disagreement among campaign pollsters.

Independent pollster John Zogby has put the number at 7 percent to 9 percent in the national electorate. Pew Research polls earlier this month said it was as many as 25 percent.

But most polls, including Tuesday’s Washington Post/ABC News poll and a new poll by the Democracy Corps, run by Democratic strategist James Carville and Mr. Greenberg, put it in the 3 percent range.

“We are talking about a very small pool of voters in the undecided category,” said Clay Richards, vice president for the Quinnipiac College poll that has been conducting surveys in Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

Notably, pollsters in different areas of the country describe these undecided voters and their political concerns in much the same way.

“The undecided voters [in Pennsylvania] are slightly more women than men, older voters concerned about the economy and health care more than the war on terrorism, which goes with their being older,” Mr. Richards said.

“They are at the lower end of the education scale with no college degree, tend to be older and have mixed opinions about both candidates,” he added. “The undecided voter is more likely to mention the economy and health care than Iraq or terrorism.”

Many pollsters said a shift in the undecided vote in recent weeks has been coming out of Mr. Kerry’s numbers, which have been falling as Mr. Bush’s numbers rise. Most national polls now show the president leading by 6 percent to 8 percent among likely voters.

“I think these [undecided voters] are people backing away from Kerry to a certain extent. Also, they are women, and on the national-security stuff, terrorism and Iraq-related issues, some of this so-called security mom syndrome is kicking in,” said Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger, who tracks state politics in his newsletter, Inside Michigan Politics.

The shift by late-breaking undecided voters in recent weeks was particularly surprising in industrial, blue-collar, heavily Democratic Michigan cities such as Saginaw, Flint and Bay City.

“Bush is within one point of Kerry in these areas. If Kerry isn’t doing better than 1 percent advantage over Bush in those areas, he is lost,” Mr. Ballenger said.

Mr. Bush has made 22 visits to Michigan, an all-time record for presidential visits, while Mr. Kerry has been in the state fewer than a dozen times in the past year.

Republicans strategists say undecided voters will continue to sway toward Mr. Bush as long as he maintains his strong positions on national security and the war on terror. They say voters who might not agree with some of Mr. Bush’s stances, such as on the war in Iraq, are attracted to his steadfastness.

“The most moveable undecided voters are going to be middle-aged women, between the ages of 43 and 55,” said Michigan Democratic pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC/MRA. “They broke away from the Democrats in 2000 because of Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They still haven’t come back to the [Democratic] fold.”

Heavily Democratic New Jersey is another state where the shift in undecideds has gone against Mr. Kerry in the past month, erasing a double-digit lead that he had there for most of the year.

“I’m just amazed at what is happening in New Jersey. Our last poll showed a dead heat. Mr. Kerry’s message is not getting across,” Mr. Richards said.

In West Virginia, where Mr. Kerry trailed Mr. Bush by nine points, Democratic State Chairman Nick Casey said there were still a significant number of “persuadables.”

If he could offer any advice to Mr. Kerry, it would be to “talk about jobs and the economy. I don’t think [Iraq] is as important as the economic issues in reaching out to undecided voters,” Mr. Casey said.

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