Report From Philly: Swing Voters Swung,

They call them swing voters for a reason. Thursday night proved why. After watching Gov. George W. Bush deliver his acceptance speech in Philadelphia, 35 out of 36 swing voters said they had a more favorable impression of the GOP nominee. Seven who'd begun the week leaning toward Gore actually swung their votes to Bush. The voters, all undecided at the start of the convention last Sunday, took part in nightly focus group sessions, sponsored by MSNBC and yrock.com. Though the group was too small to make for a reliable poll, their opinions do suggest what swing voters at home might be thinking. Undecided voters--this group was culled from suburban Philly, a swing area of swing state--are a hot political commodity in this election season. And if the final hours of the GOP convention were any indication, many of them were persuaded to cast ballots for Bush. "If Gore were testing this, he'd have an upset stomach," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who moderated the group.

At the start of the week, the group actually tilted a bit to the left. Although one third were registered Republicans, one-third registered Democrats and one-third independents, 24 of them had voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Despite all the confetti and the hoopla in three nights of convention-watching, the voters said they still hadn't heard enough specifics from the Republican nominee. But Bush's speech seemed to satisfy their hunger. The swing voters liked Bush's speech even more than Colin Powell's--26 said it was their favorite address of the convention. "This is one of the best reactions to speeches that I have seen," Luntz said.

Bush's specific proposals drew the best response from the voters, who used handheld dials to register their instant responses on a scale of zero to 100. Republicans, Democrats and Independents all liked Bush's pledge to "strengthen" Social Security and Medicare. When Bush pledged to "make prescription drugs available and affordable to every senior who needs them," his instant-response ratings soared above 80 among all three groups of voters. His plan to set up private accounts for some Social Security funds did well, but he climbed to the top of the chart when he said "Now is the time to give American workers security and independence that no politician can ever take away." His remarks on education, tax relief and the surplus also drew high marks.

But not everything in Bush's speech was popular across the board. Defense issues were more appealing to Republicans than other voters. And Dems and Independents also panned his less-than-veiled attacks on Gore and Clinton. Though some of the voters laughed aloud at Bush's joking that Gore would call anything new a "risky scheme," the jibes drew ratings in the 20s and 30s from the Dems, the 40s from Independents and the 70s from the GOPers. And the non-Republicans in the crowd, already more skeptical of Bush, showed little appreciation for some of the poetry in the speech. They also did not respond well to Bush's stance on abortion. Luntz called it "the single worst-received paragraph in the entire speech."

Despite the differences in their dialing, nearly all the voters said they were impressed with Bush's first major prime-time address. They called it "promising" and "surprising." Seven voters who'd been pro-Gore on Sunday said they now planned to vote for Bush. "He made me feel very confident in him," said Patricia O'Neill, 31, a weak Republican and a teacher who'd leaned toward Gore. Eileen Storm, 45, a teacher and an independent voter, liked Bush's tone. "He was real positive and assertive," she said. Grace Patterson, 37, an independent and a secretary, was also satisfied. "It was exactly what I was looking for," she said, citing his tax cut in particular. Bush even reached Cristina Fazzina, 36, a leaning Democrat and a Hispanic who works as an executive assistant. "I felt like he told me what he was going to do for me and for the country," she said. "Now I cannot wait to vote for him."

Only one person in the group said his impression of Bush had not improved over the week: Richard Supa, a 24-year-old independent who voted for consumer advocate Ralph Nader in 1996. He was also the only swing voter in the group who said he was not better off today than he was eight years ago. A true hard-core independent, Supa says he's not a Dem or GOPer because the two political parties "don't define politically what I am." He complained that the convention had been 5 percent issues and the rest "sentimental crap." He was unmoved by all the talk of values and character. "Character is not a big deal for me in the White House. I don't care how dirty they are or how ruthless they are. I think they almost need to be to get the job done," he said. After Bush's speech, Supa was still leaning toward a vote for Nader.

Still, Bush's effort to stage a kinder, gentler convention and put a new, more inclusive face on the Republican party seemed successful--at least among this group of swing voters. "I felt like Bush was talking to me, like he really related to me," said Richard Torres, 29, a Latino who works as a credit supervisor. Though Fazzina was still skeptical of all the diversity talk, the warm and fuzzy display in Philadelphia this week clearly made an impression. "Maybe there is hope for a new Republican party," she said. "Maybe they're coming to a middle ground. It might just be a campaign slogan, but I would give it a chance." Despite his good ratings this week, Bush shouldn't gloat just yet: Fazzina and the other swing voters plan to watch the Democratic convention in Los Angeles later this month.

Report From Philly: Swing Voters Swung, | News