ST. PETERSBURG — Five weeks ago, the St. Petersburg Times convened a group of Tampa Bay voters who were undecided about the presidential election. Their strong distrust of Barack Obama suggested it was a group ripe for John McCain to win over.
Not anymore. The group has swung dramatically, if unenthusiastically, toward Democrat Obama. Most of them this week cited the same reason: Sarah Palin.
"The one thing that frightens me more than anything else are the ideologues. We've seen too many," said 80-year-old Air Force veteran Donn Spegal, a lifelong Republican from St. Petersburg, who sees McCain's new running mate as the kind of "wedge issue" social conservative that has made him disenchanted with his party.
"I'm truly offended by Palin,'' said Republican Philinia Lehr, 37, of Largo, a full-time mother with a nursing degree who voted for George Bush in 2004. Like Palin, she has five children and she doesn't buy that the Alaska governor can adequately balance her family and the vice presidency.
"You're somebody's mom and what are you going to do, say, 'Excuse me, country, hold on?' … She's preaching that she's this mom of the year and taking that poor little baby all over everywhere. And, you know, what she's doing to her 17-year-old daughter is just appalling.'' Lehr said she's bothered by the way Palin's pregnant daughter has been brought into the national spotlight.
Of the 11 undecided voters participating in the discussion one recent evening at the Times — four Republicans, five Democrats, and two registered to no party — only two Republican men applauded the selection of Palin.
Nobody had finalized a choice, but seven of the panelists said that McCain's running mate selection had made them more likely to vote for Obama, and in several cases much more likely.
"And that ticks me off because I do not want Obama,'' said Democrat Annette Kocsis, 68, a former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter from Clearwater, scoffing at "the pit bull in lipstick," as Palin has called herself.
Palin, who makes her first Florida campaign stop Sunday in a Republican stronghold in north-central Florida, has generated enthusiasm among conservatives. But at least with this randomly selected group of swing voters, she appears to be an obstacle to McCain's winning over disillusioned Democrats or moderates.
"That was almost insulting," Democrat Rhonda Laris of Temple Terrace, another strong Clinton backer skeptical of Obama, said of the Palin pick. "Do they think we're really stupid? … I'm definitely leaning toward the Democratic side now. Sarah Palin scares ... me."
Obama is not making inroads because of anything he has done or said. It's more that McCain has repelled these swing voters in the biggest battleground region of the biggest battleground state. In several cases, voters who had sounded hungry for a reason to vote for McCain now sound resigned to settling for Obama.
"It's McCain's beliefs," said Annette Maakestad, 57, of St. Petersburg, explaining why she's shifting toward Obama. "I don't think he's changed or he's going to change his party that much."
But they're still not sold on the Illinois senator.
"I really wanted someone youthful and someone who could relate more to the future generations," said Republican Jim Soltis, 70, of Holiday, who is weighing his desire for expanded health insurance access with maintaining Bush's tax cuts. "So I keep watching and watching and hoping for Obama to say the right things, and he's not saying them."
Most members of the panel participated in a similar meeting in August, though three new voters joined the group this week. The conventions did nothing for them — bored them, in many cases — and they're looking for the debates starting Friday to finally help them make up their minds.
"I'm not crazy about Obama, and I'm really not crazy about McCain," said Democrat Carlos Gonzalez, a 70-year-old higher education administrator from Oldsmar, who preferred Clinton. "I really have not heard anybody saying what they're going to do with this mess we have."
Rebecca Montilla, a 22-year-old premed student at the University of South Florida, began questioning her Democratic allegiances when it struck her in the primary that Democrats were sounding reckless about yanking troops out of Iraq. Obama's inexperience worries her, but she comes from a lower-middle-class family in Orlando that is increasingly struggling to keep food on the table. McCain offers no reassurance.
"I go back and forth, like, every day,'' she said. "It just seems like a lot of bickering, and it's really difficult for me to see what McCain's going to do and what Obama's going to do."
Said Lehr: "I wish we could put them both back in the hat, shake it up, and start over and pick two new candidates."