A Group of Voters Watch the First Presidential Debate of 2004
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, how the debate played to a group of likely voters in North Miami, Florida. They included three registered Democrats, two Republicans and two independents. One Republican expected to attend didn’t show up.
All said they were all undecided before last night. The NewsHour invited them to watch, and Spencer Michels collected their impressions afterwards.
SPENCER MICHELS: Thank you all very much for being here. Let’s start with Karen Unger. You wanted to hear more from Sen. Kerry on Iraq. Did you hear anything that you wanted to hear?
KAREN UNGER: I heard a lot of “I have a plan,” but I didn’t hear a lot of specifics. I do have a son who is military age. I’m concerned about the war.
SPENCER MICHELS: Jeff Davidson, you have said that you were concerned the country might be more at risk if we changed presidents at this time. Did you get any sense about that tonight?
JEFF DAVIDSON: Not as yet, no. One of the things that Sen. Kerry said is that he has made some mistakes. And I think is okay to do that. And I would like to have heard that from President Bush as well, and I didn’t. I felt that Kerry came across to me a little more believable.
I think President Bush fumbled a little bit on a few topics, and he chuckled a little bit, which is a characteristic of his. Not to question what he was going to answer, but I think it’s a pause gesture to give him a chance to think.
SPENCER MICHELS: Is that gesture, that chuckling or whatever you call it, is that something you like or you don’t like?
JEFF DAVIDSON: I don’t like.
SPENCER MICHELS: You don’t like. Elizabeth Peterson, you’re a social worker. How did you react to tonight’s debate?
ELIZABETH PETERSON: I think both candidates did not seem to have a good grasp on a plan to get out of Iraq or what we are doing there. They were kind of vague about if we need to train people some more, or that they need to be free and this will help everyone else.
So I think I need to hear more specifics on their plan to get out of Iraq, and what exactly their future endeavors are.
SPENCER MICHELS: Jeff was talking about the demeanor of President Bush. How do you feel about that with both or either candidate?
ELIZABETH PETERSON: I actually liked President Bush’s demeanor. I thought it made it like an everyday kind of person, and he seemed so sincere.
And like I thought Kerry was a little bit too glib for me. But it’s like, I felt like, what President Bush was saying, he stands by what he believes and he has a firm grasp.
SPENCER MICHELS: Reah Reeves, this debate tonight was on foreign policy. How important was foreign policy to you?
REAH REEVES: To me, it is important. But I also think that our policies at home need to be worked on. Like, when I hear about how we’re going to change the war, I think that they both are pretty much going for the same plan.
SPENCER MICHELS: Are you still pretty much on the fence or are you leaning one way or the other?
REAH REEVES: I am still on the fence. But I will say that I think that Kerry did pretty good tonight. He was a lot more concrete in his views, and Bush was very concrete in saying the same thing over and over again.
SPENCER MICHELS: Okay. Louis Ruiz, you work for a cruise line here in Miami, and you have said you thought that the debate would be a good place for Sen. Kerry to explain his plan for the war. Do you think he did it?
LOUIS RUIZ, JR.: I think John Kerry did a good job in the beginning of setting the tone. But when it comes to substance and numbers, I think the president did a very good job of stating that 75 percent of the al-Qaida leadership has been either captured or killed.
At the same time, the senator had a very good rate of speaking. It was almost like he was having a conversation with Jim Lehrer.
SPENCER MICHELS: Edgar Shriver, you are a retired psychologist, but without analyzing the election tell us how you reacted to this debate tonight. Did you hear anything that would help you make up your mind?
EDGAR SHRIVER: There was one thing I wanted to hear, and that was how to get out of Iraq in four months instead of four years, because I don’t think a war of occupation can be won — that people resent occupation and what we need to do is get out.
SPENCER MICHELS: Sen. Kerry did say he would like to try, if things go well, to start getting out in six months or so.
EDGAR SHRIVER: He was closer.
SPENCER MICHELS: He was closer.
EDGAR SHRIVER: Yeah.
SPENCER MICHELS: Okay. Lisa Becker-Bisheak, you got a couple of kids, and are they of military age?
LISA BECKER-BIZJAK: They will be in a few years.
SPENCER MICHELS: How does that play into the way you watch this debate tonight?
LISA BECKER-BIZJAK: Well, we are very sensitive to that. We’ve been a military family. Their father actually was called back to duty after 9/11, so this is very near and dear to our hearts, and we were very supportive of the president after 9/11. I thought he did a fabulous job and his commandeering of the situation was necessary.
And the fact that he does not want to change that course is understandable, because if he does, he will be seen as somebody who is going back on what he has done before. But it sounds as if both the candidates have the same perspective: They want to stay in Iraq long enough to train Iraqis and then they would leave.
SPENCER MICHELS: So, if they are fairly equivalent on that issue, then what do you use to make your decision?
LISA BECKER-BIZJAK: To me, this is the primary issue. This is the primary area of responsibility this person has as they sit in that presidential seat.
SPENCER MICHELS: Edgar, at one point, at several points in fact, the president chastised Sen. Kerry for saying over “this is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time.” “You can not say that kind of thing and inspire our troops.”
EDGAR SHRIVER: I don’t think it hurts troop moral at all. I think you are supposed to be able to talk about such things, not hide them under the rug.
SPENCER MICHELS: Is that an issue then, this not being able to talk about something?
EDGAR SHRIVER: Yes, sure.
SPENCER MICHELS: Why is that an issue?
EDGAR SHRIVER: Sure you should be able to talk about it. I go back to Vietnam so often and hear presidents saying the same things that Bush is now saying, that we got to keep it up, we got to win this war, when obviously it can’t be won.
LOUIS RUIZ, JR.: The bottom line is that is time to take an offensive on the war on terror. We are at the point were an offense is the best defense in our country and I think our president understands that. He understands that this war… terrorism has global ramifications and at this point we need to take action globally.
SPENCER MICHELS: Lisa, how do you feel about this?
LISA BECKER-BIZJAK: Well, the president does have more experience, and clearly that helps. The question is, do we want that consistency that he has brought to the table or do we want a sort of refreshing from Kerry that things need to change and we need to have a new way of doing things.
GUEST: There is the war on terror and there is the war in Iraq. There’re two different things.
GUEST: I think there is no question that there is a war on terror, but I think there is a question that we should not be fighting it by ourselves.
SPENCER MICHELS: Reah, what are you waiting to hear before you make a decision, or do you know?
REAH REEVES: Both candidates brought up nuclear proliferation, and something that I picked on was that Kerry said, “I want to able to go to the Soviet Union, I want to clean out the nuclear proliferation,” where as Bush said, “well, I want to get it out of the hands of the terrorists,” and I thought, “okay.”
So if it is getting sold in the Soviet Union to terrorists, don’t we want to take care of it while it’s in the Soviet Union before it gets to the terrorists? That is just something that keeps going around in my head over and over again.
SPENCER MICHELS: Louis, for example, is nuclear proliferation one of the issues that you are going to make your decision on in this election or is that…
LOUIS RUIZ, JR.: Absolutely.
SPENCER MICHELS: It is?
LOUIS RUIZ, JR.: Absolutely, because you can not have these weapons around all over the place. John Kerry says he can do it in four years what will take George Bush thirteen years to accomplish. My question is: How?
SPENCER MICHELS: Could both of these men handle the toughness of being the president of the United States? Edgar?
EDGAR SHRIVER: I came into this thinking we have one bumbler and that was Kerry and one bungler and that’s bush, and after looking at it I said, “oh, Kerry is not the bumbler I thought, he is doing pretty well,” but I still saw the bungler there saying “we are going to continue our bungling course.”
SPENCER MICHELS: Karen?
KAREN UNGER: This is a toughie. I’m not sure we have a good choice.
SPENCER MICHELS: One of the things that the president said towards the end of the debate was that if America shows weakness to the world, it will be a great tragedy. Is that an issue in this campaign?
GUEST: Absolutely. It would be a tragedy, but I do not know if pulling out of Iraq is showing weakness.
GUEST: Weakness comes in the form of indecisiveness.
LISA BECKER-BIZJAK: That does not mean we can not pull out of Iraq and is not going to show a sense of indecisiveness to do so, and I think we need to do so quickly. The question is which man is more fit to be in that position when that time comes.
SPENCER MICHELS: And that is just were we started and that is how we are going to end. I want to thank you all very much for being here.
GUESTS: Thank you.
GUEST: Thank you, Spencer.