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We headed to Virginia's Prince William County, a swing county in a swing state, to watch Wednesday night's presidential debate with four undecided voters — three of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2008, one who voted for Republican John McCain.
They gathered in the Occoquan home of Kim Deal and Jim Drakes, and were joined by Connie Moser of Dale City and Al Alborn of Manassas.
The consensus of the group was that Republican Mitt Romney won the debate, putting together a more "focused and sincere" performance, Moser said, adding: "The president seemed to be struggling to make his point."
One thing that struck the watchers — and through the entire 90-minute debate — was Obama's demeanor, which they described as distracted, tired and, at times, dour.
"The stagecraft wasn't there," Alborn said. "Obama's the smarter guy and said a lot of stuff I like. But Romney had wonderful stagecraft, and for older guys like me, his closing looked like Reagan."
Obama failed to adequately explain what he's been doing these past four years, Drakes said, with the exception of the list of accomplishments he provided at the end of the event.
Romney was fervent, they said; Obama was in the weeds.
"Both looked presidential," Alborn said, "but Romney walked away with more because Romney's not the president. He had more to gain, and he gained it. Obama had more to lose, and he lost it."
A surprise? No mention of Romney's "47 percent" comments.
The night's big loser, though?
The moderator, PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, who wielded little control over the proceeding.
"If I had to vote here, Lehrer would be off the island," Drakes said.
We talked to our debate watchers before the debate, and then asked for more detailed individual responses after the debate. Here's more about our participants, and their debate thoughts:
Kim Deal, 42, a systems engineer/program manager for a defense contractor
Deal, who voted for McCain in 2008, said before the debate that she hasn't seen anything compelling enough yet from either candidate to win her vote.
And she's not even sure she'll vote for either of them in November.
"I'm very frustrated with both candidates, and I have to say with the parties as well," she says. "I'd love to have a 'none of the above.' "
Going into the debate, Deal said she wanted to hear "some fiscal conservatism," and more details on the health care overhaul legislation.
"Obamacare is an interesting concept," she says, "but how are states going to pay for it?"
Her pre-debate impression was that Obama is "more relaxed in his own skin" than Romney.
On the debate:
"The biggest moment for me was when Romney was talking about drilling for oil and supporting coal. It made me clinch. That's not something we're going to get back; when it's gone, it's gone. That was disturbing to me. Of the four people here, I'm the least political. I've heard before that they were very similar, and it occurred to me that they are.
"I do still feel that Obama, by using specific examples from his life, like his grandmother, it did hit home that his life is much more similar to my life. My parents are 80, on Social Security, on Medicare, live together in their own home. But it's a concern of mine. We don't have enough money if something happened to my parents, or Jim's mom. I'm convinced no matter who I vote for I'm going to get the same kind of deal — except drilling. If I had to base it on tonight, I'd vote for Obama because of that."
Jim Drakes, 48, physicist with a defense contractor
Drakes voted for Obama in 2008, and still likes him. But before the debate he says that Romney may be a better person to address the nation's debt and deficit issues because he might be tougher making cuts.
"Obama is very much, it seems, a compassionate man, someone I would want in the White House," Drakes says. "It's not just about the numbers — he can see further than the next fiscal quarter.
"But that can be a drawback at times, too," he said. "Romney brings realism to the table, and I think he would be more effective in the near-term getting debt and spending under control."
On the debate:
"I think Romney did a great job of putting the economic numbers in place, and forcefully projecting his economic position. The president really stumbled explaining to the American people how he's going to generate jobs. Romney did, and that will resonate with people in Ohio and Florida.
"The difficulty is it's always easy to say those things. Obama's had the problem of having to deal with this. I think the president's responses were quite disappointing. I would like to see him display more energy about why he wants to be president. It looked like he was running a staff meeting. He needed a much more forceful projection. He didn't make clear what he's accomplished."
Connie Moser, 59, community activist from Dale City
Moser voted for Obama in 2008, but says she's concerned about the state of the economy.
"It seems like things have progressively gotten worse, economy wise, and with the debt," Moser said before the debate. "I really don't think it has to do with one politician — it's the ideas that we're using that aren't working."
She questioned the stimulus program, and its effect on the national debt.
"It sounded good when we started, but do you ever watch the debt clock?" she said, adding: "But here's where the wiffle waffle comes in — I have seen economists say we needed that stimulus. But I'm a person who doesn't owe anyone anything.
"It's not compatible with my core feelings."
She went into the debate leaning toward Romney, but said she's willing to listen to what they say in the debates.
"I appreciate that the candidates are wiling to undergo such an ordeal," she said.
On the debate:
"I just don't feel like I'm any closer to a decision. It felt like a lot of give-and-take. There were some points that each candidate made that appealed to me, and points each made that made me cringe.
"When Romney talked about freedom to choose your school, he's talking about Title I-funded schools [those that have 35 percent or more of their students as disadvantaged or at risk]. In Dale City we have one, and over the last four years they've lost 300 students. Parents pulled them out because it's a Title I school. I think that's all backwards. Also, Romney likes coal, and I didn't like that."
Al Alborn, 64, is retired from the military after 22 years, and then worked in the defense industry until retiring in 2002. He describes himself as a small-government libertarian, and voted for Obama in 2008.
"If I had to vote today, I'd vote for Romney," Alborn said before the debate. "But I haven't scratched Obama off completely.
"I was surprised I voted for him last time — I bought into the hope and change, and also did not like the way McCain picked his running mate [Sarah Palin]," he said.
"We do need a health care solution, and I thought [Obama] would put together a coalition," he said. "Lyndon Johnson, people from the old guard, knew how to cross into the center, and I get the impression that Obama lacks those skills.
"There's also the possibility that the vestige of racism in the country hurt him," Alborn said.
On the debate:
"I voted for Obama because we needed a health care solution. Tonight he came across as a very smart guy. But I think Romney did a wonderful job defending against the Democratic Party campaign rhetoric about what he intends to do. He came off very Reaganesque. And for seniors, he went out of his way to defend Medicare. I liked how he talked about working across party lines in Massachusetts. I need to listen to foreign policy because that's a big issue for me.
"If I had to vote today, I've vote for Romney. But I don't have to vote today. I'm looking forward to foreign policy debate — I would prefer to see our military budget focused on defense, not offense. There's a lot of waste out there, systems pushed by congressmen. We're buying weapon systems that the secretary of defense doesn't want. Romney is buying into that. The use of the military is a failure in foreign policy."
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