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A Window Into the Minds of GOP Voters

By Carl Leubsdorf

GLEN ALLEN, Va. - A dozen Republican voters put a human face on the uncertainty over their party's 2008 presidential candidates and the downbeat mood of the nation that has been registered in recent polls.

In a two-hour discussion Thursday night in this Richmond suburb, they expressed doubts about the leading candidates and readily shifted their allegiances in their quest for a conservative GOP standard-bearer.

All but two identified themselves as Republicans or conservatives. Three said they were moderates. They participated in a focus group moderated by pollster Peter Hart, a Democrat who regularly conducts such nonpartisan sessions under the sponsorship of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

In general, while participants had some sense of the leading GOP candidates, they often lacked knowledge of their positions or personal backgrounds. That's hardly surprising, since the Virginia primary is not until Feb. 12 and the candidates have concentrated their efforts on such early voting states as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Rudy Giuliani, who leads most national GOP polls, had the most support at the outset. But several who initially favored the former New York mayor acknowledged that they were torn between admiration for the leadership skills he displayed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and concern about his support of abortion and views on gay marriage.

The group, as a whole, knew far less about Fred Thompson, who only entered the race in September. "He's not comfortable in his role yet," said June Beninghove, 67, a retired secretary, who nonetheless said she favored the former Tennessee senator.

Others cited his personal characteristics, calling him conservative and fatherly and, in one case, "more like [the late President Ronald] Reagan."

But when the group was asked toward the end of the evening to choose between Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Thompson, most - including several initial Giuliani backers - raised their hands for Mr. Thompson, despite uncertainty about him and his views.

Jason Richardson, 36, a sales manager, said he had been leaning toward Mr. Giuliani "based on his past experience and leadership qualities. But I just have a hard time with the pro-choice - he's for abortion - and the gay marriage - he supports that, as well." (Actually, Mr. Giuliani supports civil unions but not gay marriage.)

As a result, he now leans to Mr. Thompson.

Susie Rommell, 54, a purchasing manager, initially said she was undecided but leaning toward Mr. Giuliani. "I have mixed feelings, but I think the country needs a strong leader," she said. But she, too, ultimately raised her hand for Mr. Thompson.

"I would probably be for Giuliani if it were not for the abortion issue," said Ann Turner, 34, a fitness instructor. She initially favored Sen. John McCain of Arizona but chose Mr. Thompson over Mr. Giuliani, the former New York mayor.

In general, the group displayed disappointment about President Bush, concern about the state of the country and little enthusiasm for any candidate.

Asked how things are going, many used downbeat words such as "very uneasy," "very scary," "shaky economy" and "a lot of turmoil."

"I'm troubled by the war," said Brian Matt, 48, a housing agency planner.

The downbeat mood was exemplified by the fact that none felt their children's generation would be better off economically than theirs. Their views on Mr. Bush, for whom all had voted, ranged from general disappointment to praise for his standing firm on Iraq.

They seemed similarly unenthusiastic about the 2008 Republican field. "They're not conservative enough," said George Kraynak, 65, a maintenance supervisor, who is torn between Mr. Thompson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. A majority agreed.

Mr. Matt said he favored Mr. Giuliani "because he has the best chance of beating the Democrats."

And David Armstrong, 42, an accountant who favors Mr. Thompson, conceded, "I will be more voting against the other person than for whomever the Republicans put up there."

All, in fact, planned to vote for whichever Republican is ultimately nominated against any of the main Democratic hopefuls. That included several who expressed unease about the Mormon faith of another leading GOP hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Being a Democrat "is worse than being a Mormon," Mr. Armstrong said. "There's Mormons, and there's insects, and there's Democrats," he added, extending his arm and then lowering it to indicate his decreasing regard for each group.

All were critical of Sen. Hillary Clinton, the current Democratic front-runner, using such terms as "dastardly" and "deceitful" to describe her.

But most conceded she was both strong and competent. "She's wickedly competent," Mr. Armstrong said.

When the group was asked what issues were most important to them, Iraq headed the list, followed by moral values and immigration. Only one favored a quick end to the war. They also gave less priority to issues like health care and the economy than would be likely among more Democratic groups.

Only Mr. Matt, a Giuliani supporter, said he was firmly fixed with his choice of a candidate. As Mr. Richardson put it, "There's a lot of time left."

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington Bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is cleubsdorf@dallasnews.com.

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