Report From Philly: Checking In With Our Focus Group

While most Americans tuned into the latest episode of "Survivor" or the Minnesota-Baltimore baseball game on Wednesday night, 36 volunteers gamely gathered at a Philadelphia Holiday Inn to watch the latest installment of another drama: the Republican convention. They are undecided voters, the holy grail of this election season. But winning them over won't be easy: they're a decidedly grumpy lot. They don't like negative attacks. They don't like saccharin sweet tributes. (Who cares if Dick Cheney likes fly fishing?) They don't like speakers who look too rehearsed, yet they rip apart those who stumble. So far, they seem to hate nearly everything they see. "They're the Siskel and Ebert of American politics," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who's been moderating nightly focus group sessions with the same three dozen Philadelphia swing voters.

After three nights of GOP stagecraft, Gov. George W. Bush has made some progress with these undecideds, but he has hardly closed the deal. On Sunday, before the convention began, Bush rated a 49 out of 100 favorable rating. By Wednesday night, he had inched up to 54. In the focus group sessions, sponsored by MSNBC and yrock.com, one-third of the voters are registered Republicans, one-third registered Democrats and one-third independents. All voted in 1996 (24 of them for Bill Clinton) and all say they're very likely to vote again this fall. But by last weekend none of them had yet picked a candidate. Though the group is too small to make for a reliable poll, their opinions do offer a window on what swing voters at home might be thinking. Thursday night, when Bush makes his prime-time acceptance speech, they'll get their most detailed look yet at one man who could be president.

It'll be tough to match Monday night's address from Gen. Colin Powell. As they watched his speech, the voters moved small handheld dials, turning them toward 100 for phrases they liked and toward zero for lines that turned them off. A computer tabulates the dial data and generates a moving chart that looks like a heart monitor. A green line represents Republicans; a red one indicates Dems and a white one Independents. When Powell spoke, all three lines moved spiked to the top of the chart--the highest ratings possible. When he talked about affirmative action, the Democrats even outpaced GOP voters in their approval. Afterwards, the voters were effusive about Powell. "He just instilled confidence in me," said Richard Torres, 29, a Hispanic and a leaning Democrat who works as a credit supervisor.

The voters were less enthusiastic about the week's other speakers. They thought Laura Bush was too stiff and rehearsed. Even John McCain got mixed reviews. They all liked his patriotic talk--"we are part of something providential"--but were more suspicious of his endorsement of Bush. Voters remembered that the two men had been slinging mud at each other just a few months ago. "I thought it was really phony," said Richard Supa, 24, an independent voter who works as a waiter. "I do feel he's disappointed he didn't get the nomination. It just came off as obligatory." Joan Pavalow, an independent and a 55-year-old day care provider, agreed that McCain didn't look sincere. "I know he's not for Bush," she said. "He's just standing up there trying to push him in because he's a Republican." The carefully managed convention also began to grate on some. "It's all staged," complained Steve Golden, 54, a structural engineer and leaning Democrat. "This whole unity thing. It's getting sickeningly sweet already."

When the talk turned partisan on Wednesday night, the sparks really began to fly. Veep nominee Dick Cheney's attack speech divided the group sharply along party lines. Many of the voters were already suspicious of Cheney after watching video clips of him defending his voting record on Meet the Press. But when it came to his speech, the GOP-leaners loved the jabs at the Clinton-Gore administration. "Everyone makes him ((Clinton)) out to be some hero," said Patricia O'Neill, 31, a teacher and a weak Republican. "I think he's an embarrassment to our country." Kristi Fox, 30, a leaning GOPer who works as an administrative coordinator agreed. "When you think of Gore, you are going to think of Clinton. I really don't want that image in the White House for the next four years," she said.

But the Dems and independents hated what they saw as negative campaigning. "Backstabber. I thought Bush wasn't going to be mentioning Clinton and everything. He let Cheney do it," complained Marlene Berman, 55, a leaning Democrat who's a supply technician. "When he kept saying 'let's get rid of them,' he got rid of me," said Trish McQuirns, 42, a leaning Democrat. "I was quite offended. When he said it was time for them to go, I thought, 'okay, I'll go. I won't be voting for them.' " Many thought it was hitting below the belt to tie Gore to Clinton. "He portrayed Gore as guilty by association. It goes against my grain to do that," said Rick Rodgers, 58, an attorney and an independent voter. Even some GOPers were bothered by the newly harsh tone. "If I had to vote today, I wouldn't vote for Bush because of what Cheney did tonight," said Eve Sherman, 53, a leaning Republican who's a supply technician.

Despite the voters' complaints, the negative attacks could still work. "What voters say is not necessarily how they behave," says pollster Luntz. "Even though people hated Dick Cheney, his message got through." When they tune in to Bush's speech Thursday night, the swing voters will be listening carefully. Will Bush go negative? Will he reinforce the party's new kinder, gentler image? If Bush wants to woo these swing voters, says Luntz, he'll give them plenty of specifics about his plans and stick to lofty, non-partisan rhetoric. The political Siskel and Eberts will be waiting with their thumbs up--or thumbs down.

Report From Philly: Checking In With Our Focus Group | News