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Gwen’s Take: Why Binders and Big Bird Don’t Matter

President Obama and Gov. Romney at Tuesday’s debate. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

It’s all personal. Watching the candidates for president circle each other in their town hall cage match this week, I was reminded that this is all that matters in politics.

No budget agreement? It’s because John Boehner and President Obama stopped talking. Looming fiscal cliff? It’s because congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans can’t afford to look weak.

That’s all inside chatter. But if you’re voting for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, it’s because one or the other has persuaded you he can make your life better.

I met Sally Russell in a pumpkin patch in Natick, Massachusetts last week. She was standing with a baseball cap pulled low over her forehead to protect herself from the spitting rain. In both hands she gripped a huge Scott Brown for Senate sign.

Our conversation, as so many do, began by chatting about the funky weather. Eyeing her, I realized she seemed to be just the sort of suburban woman that pollsters tell us both the Obama and the Romney campaigns are fighting over.

Russell had in fact voted for both the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and for President Obama – two big-time Democrats. But now, for the second time, she was working for Brown, a Republican.

Russell, it turns out, is among the legions of the long-term unemployed.

“Well, I’m looking for a job, and I would like to stay in my community,” she told me. “And it’s turned out to be an immense chore. I’ve been offered jobs that are primarily part-time, and I’m concerned about my medical insurance, because I am paying an additional $400 a month for medical insurance, just in the past two years. So that frightens me.”

Russell also plans to vote for Romney. Why? I asked. She said with a little shrug, “My job. I need a job.”

As my reporting has taken me around the country this election year — including to several of the key so-called battleground states — self-interest has been the recurring theme.

This is not unusual. This is how we vote. But candidates eager to score points against each other often seem to lose sight of this.

One town hall voter this week asked the presidential candidates about equal pay for women. One replied by citing a law he signed, as if it were a magic wand. The other boasted of the binders full of women candidates he solicited when he was elected. Both answers were partial. One was mocked.

In Massachusetts, where Scott Brown is facing a spirited challenge from Harvard professor and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, this is no less true. The candidates have been savaging each other on air and on the stump, saying neither is what he or she seems to be. But that’s not necessarily what voters are listening for.

Steve Koczela, the president of the MassINC Polling Group, said voters he surveys want the answers to just two big questions. “Who’s going to stand up for me when they’re in the Senate?” And “Who agrees with me on key issues?”

This sounds simplistic, but it fits with what voters have been telling us all year.

“What I feel the U.S. Senator should be worrying about is the citizens of Massachusetts, not partisan politics, not all of the other stuff that goes on in Washington,” said Steve Kerrigan, who was out bowling in Shrewsbury.

“It’s the economy; it’s jobs,” said Dick Wadhams, who once ran the Colorado Republican party. “Colorado has an 8.2 percent unemployment rate, so now it’s higher than the rest of the nation.”

“I’m not very optimistic about the direction of the country,” knife sharpener Kevin Noon told us in Northfield, Ohio. “Because we keep getting politicians who don’t change anything.”

These voters I keep meeting are exhausted by the political ads, by the hostile and contradictory crosstalk, but mostly by the idea that this election might be about anything but them.

With one more debate and only a few weeks to go, the candidates for president and Congress still have the chance to prove them wrong.

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