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POLITICS

Distant Thunder

Voters' doubts about Obama were by far McCain's strongest asset.

LAKEWOOD, Colo.--Sherry Shutts usually votes Republican, and four years ago she pulled the lever for President Bush. But when Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who represents this older suburb just west of Denver, knocked on her door while campaigning for re-election last week, Shutts surprised him by reporting that she wasn't yet committed to John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee.

Shutts, who is in her 60s and keeps the books for her husband's construction business, told Perlmutter she wants change and is dubious that McCain can deliver it. "He just doesn't seem very dynamic," Shutts said. "I keep waiting for him to come forward with something that makes me think he's going to do a good job." But Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, hasn't won her loyalty either. "He gives an elegant speech," she said, "but ... he hasn't been there very long."

 

Such ambivalence was voiced frequently during the two days I spent interviewing nearly 60 voters in the Denver suburbs around the Fourth of July. With Colorado as a top battleground state, these suburban communities could be ground zero in the presidential campaign by Election Day.

But November seemed very distant to the voters Perlmutter encountered and to the families who set up elaborate tents under a strong summer sun for the Independence Day celebration on the huge lawn at Cornerstone Park in Littleton, another Denver suburb. The political commentariat may be obsessively grading each thrust and parry in the nonstop jousting between the Obama and McCain campaigns, but virtually none of that dueling is reaching the voters I met. That's especially true of the undecideds, like Shutts. For them, the campaign looms as a kind of back-to-school assignment that they plan to crack later, maybe starting in late summer with the national party conventions.

Yet initial reactions to McCain and Obama are emerging, and they suggest that each candidate will face as many obstacles as opportunities with the swing voters likely to decide their contest. Obama's greatest asset during the interviews was widespread, often intense, dissatisfaction with President Bush and the country's direction on issues from Iraq to gasoline prices. Several voters who supported Bush in 2004 said they intended to back Obama because they had lost faith in the president and think McCain would follow his tracks too closely.

 

Obama also stirred genuine passion among many white-collar voters, who predicted that he would bridge divisions at home and around the globe. Typical was Tom Brook, a management consultant from Centennial, who backed Bush in 2004 but now favors Obama because "he can articulate a vision for the future and mobilize people." For such voters, whose intellectual achievements have carried them to comfortable lives, faith in Obama's intelligence trumps any concern about his level of experience.

That equation was inverted among blue-collar voters, especially men. I encountered some support for Obama among blue-collar women, mostly around economic issues. But among blue-collar men, Obama faced pervasive skepticism about his qualifications and priorities. "With a war going on, to have someone as commander-in-chief who had not been in the military is a little scary," said Ken Turley of Littleton, who works in a granite shop. Another man, who described himself as a veteran but would give his name only as Matt, offered a more visceral objection: "I can't vote for a guy whose middle name is Hussein. I can't trust that guy."

Such doubts about Obama were by far McCain's strongest asset. Some voters praised McCain's military service. But only a handful expressed any excitement about his candidacy. Many conservatives considered him too moderate; several moderates complained that he had conceded too much to conservatives since his 2000 presidential race. For McCain, passion may prove the most elusive campaign resource.

Enough former Bush supporters seem open to Obama to provide him an edge in Colorado--and perhaps nationwide. But that tilt isn't so pronounced, or settled, that McCain couldn't reverse it. This contest may pivot on the many voters like Shutts who appear simultaneously concerned that Obama offers too much change and McCain offers too little. And those voters have made the least progress toward solidifying their decisions in a race that remains little more than distant thunder for most people here.

 

This article appears in the July 12, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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