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Candidates Debate, Voters Try to Decide

October 1, 2004

President Bush and John Kerry debated for 90 minutes Thursday night about the Iraq war, terrorism and homeland security, each making a pitch to voters that he is better suited to run the country. To find out what American voters thought, Associated Press writers watched the debate with critical voting groups in key states, from Ohio to Florida to Oregon.

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In MIAMI: Jose Pineda watched the start of the debate while sitting _ arms folded, a skeptical expression on his face _ at the bar of El Atlacatl, a Salvadoran restaurant in Little Havana where the jumbo shrimp with garlic can be had for under $11.

He and other patrons gazed at four big TVs, playing with a simultaneous translation into Spanish.

When Kerry attacked Bush about the cost of the Iraq war and argued he could do better, Pineda suddenly became more interested, leaning forward and looking intensely at the screen.

``He seems stronger, and I like what he said about how much this war is costing us,″ said Pineda, a 38-year-old gardener who isn’t sure he’ll even vote Nov. 2. ``I don’t know how he’s going to achieve his objectives, but it’s clear that he’s serious about doing something.″

A naturalized citizen born in Mexico, Pineda said he feels the president ``tried to do the right thing to defend this country. But I’m not hearing anything about he’s going to end it (the Iraq war).″

In a corner booth sat Felipe Francia, 24, and his 28-year-old girlfriend, Patricia Hernandez.

``Before this debate, I thought I knew why we went to war,″ Hernandez said. ``Now I’m not so sure. Now that I hear them both talking to each other, and now that Bush is being questioned about why he forgot (Osama) bin Laden and went for Saddam (Hussein), I’m confused about why we went to war in the first place.″

But there wasn’t any confusion for Elsy Rivas, a Republican who has owned the restaurant for 16 years with her husband, Jaime.

``Kerry is a joke. Now that he’s running for president, he’s against the war. How can that be? He voted for it,″ she said. ``I don’t like wars. I lived through war in Salvador. But sometimes they’re necessary. Bush is trying to say he went into this war to protect _ not to conquer.″

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In PORTLAND, Ore.: Republican Joe Shore sparred with the TV set as he viewed the debate _ especially when Kerry was talking.

Watching from his living room in this battleground state, the 58-year-old Shore sighed as Kerry chided the president for not having fully cooperated with the United Nations in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq.

``The United Nations will never act,″ Shore said. ``They didn’t act in Rwanda. They didn’t act in Bosnia. They haven’t acted in Sudan.″

He listened intently as Bush described the prayer and words of thanks he shared with ``Missy,″ a bereaved widow who lost her husband in Iraq.

``This is the Bush I like. This is the one that I think is the right leader for this country,″ Shore said softly. ``He’s just really talking from his heart.″

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In YOUNGTOWN, Ariz.: Lucille Retheford doesn’t mind being the odd woman out. Not as the oldest member of the town council in this retirement hamlet near Phoenix. And certainly not as the only undecided voter at a debate-watching gathering sprinkled with Bush supporters.

Hands clasped, lips pursed, the 83-year-old retiree kept her eyes locked on the candidates as she and a handful of seniors took in the debate in a conference room off the town square.

The others snickered as Bush called his opponent inconsistent, and nodded in agreement as the president defended the Iraq war. Retheford was listening for something else: character and strength.

``They’re both qualified, both intelligent, both dedicated to this country,″ said the registered Democrat who supported Bush in 2000. ``It’s how they think on their feet.″

On that count, her vote on who won the debate went to Kerry. Nevertheless, her vote come Election Day remains in the undecided column.

``He really was very astute, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to make the best president,″ she said of Kerry. ``There’s more to this than terrorism and nuclear proliferation. I have to hear all the issues before I make up my mind.″

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In CLEVELAND: Wire-rimmed eyeglasses sliding down his nose, steelworker Ralph Myers leaned over from his chair and scribbled notes as he watched the debate.

A father of three and a union leader from Cleveland’s working-class Hough neighborhood, Myers didn’t want to miss a word of the debate, leading up to what he described as the most important election of his life.

The 55-year-old Vietnam veteran said he was unimpressed with Bush’s responses about why the United States went to war with Iraq. ``He ain’t proved nothing to me yet,″ Myers said.

Myers believes Kerry is a better choice to keep children like his 6-year-old son out of future wars.

``It’s not a good thing to watch this war progressing. I want to see these young men come home,″ Myers said. ``Somebody somewhere has to have an end game for this.″

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Associated Press writers Todd Lewan, Rukmini Callimachi, Pauline Arrillaga and Connie Mabin contributed to this story.

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