TOLEDO, Ohio - There are 100 days left in what, at times, has seemed like an endless presidential election. And these are the bewildered sounds of the Undecided American, trying to decide.
"I know Obama says he has put people back to work, and I don't dispute that," Pam Nickel said at an outdoor shopping mall in Perrysburg, Ohio, on Tuesday. Underemployment is a big issue for her, though. "I don't know that the last four years will sway me as much as what happens in the next few months," she said.
"I'm definitely not voting for Obama. Our country's in the worst mess ever, and certainly he needs to take some responsibility," said Bobbie Hodge, 71, a retired nurse from Iron County, Mo. "And yet, I'm not sure about Romney."
After filing for bankruptcy in 2010, Sue Grigsby, 46, who works with special-needs students at Maumee High School in Northwest Ohio, said thing are getting back to normal. "Honestly, we hit rock bottom," Grigsby said, "But we're getting back on our feet."
In these next 100 days, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney and their political allies will spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to sway uncommitted voters in a few key states. These are the people they're after.
Interviews with dozens of voters in Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia illustrate just how complicated each voter's decision can be and, sometimes, how very far removed it is from the election strategies being mapped out in campaign conference rooms in Chicago or Boston or Washington.
The conversations with voters also show how little the daily media circus of gaffes and campaign ads and surrogate attacks actually moves its intended targets. After months of heavy advertising by Romney, many voters knew only that he is Mormon, rich and not Obama.
This weekend, the Obama campaign kicks off the last 100 days of campaigning with 4,600 small events around the country, including Olympics-watching parties, house parties and "Barbecues for Barack."
The Romney campaign is taking a different approach. The candidate is in Israel this weekend as part of an overseas tour designed to enhance his image as an international statesman.
"I'm not sure that 100 days out is going to feel much different than 105 days out or 95 days out," said Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser. He said the campaign thinks that less than 10 percent of the electorate should be considered truly "undecided." Still, Gillespie said, in comparison with the Obama camp: "We'd rather play our hand than theirs."
As it turns out, the fight is for an extraordinarily small slice of the U.S. electorate.
In one recent poll, more than two-thirds of voters said they already had all the information they needed to make their choice.
So a few undecided people, in just a few places, could swing an entire country. Washington Post reporters visited four counties that could be decisive: All four voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and then for Obama in 2008, and each is in a state that will be crucial to the outcome in November.
The most recent poll of Ohio from Quinnipiac is almost a month old and shows Obama leading Romney 48 percent to 37 percent. In Missouri, Romney was ahead 51 to 42 percent in a Post-Dispatch Mason Dixon poll, published Friday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In Virginia and Florida, the race is much tighter. The latest Quinnipiac poll in Virginia shows Romney and Obama deadlocked at 44 to 44 percent. The latest Mason-Dixon poll in Florida has the candidates running about even with Obama and Romney at 46 and 45 percent, respectively.
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In Wood County, Ohio — part of the Toledo suburbs — many undecided voters seemed to be nurturing some little dream — a small business, a new job, a farmers market stand.
They were trying to figure out which candidate might help bring this to fruition.
For Linda Lambert, 66, that dream is cookies and bread. And that candidate is Romney.
Lambert knows little about Romney. But she's afraid that Obama loves regulation too much and that this could complicate her business selling cookies at farmers markets across northwest Ohio.
"I believe the best thing about being an American is you can do what I'm doing," Lambert said, handing a blueberry muffin to a girl with a stuffed bear. "If I was any more regulated, I probably couldn't sell cookies."
For Judi Vale, 65, the dream is a small jewelry business. Her candidate might be Obama.
"We got in with the whole Bush thing, and he kind of left this country a mess," Vale said. "Obama is overdoing things, but who would have wanted that job anyway? He seems to be doing what he thinks his right."
Vale is a part-time water aerobics and yoga instructor from the Cleveland area. She voted for Bush in two elections before favoring Obama in 2008. Her at-home jewelry business took a big hit in the recession.
Romney's campaign is aimed exactly at people like Vale, those uncertain about Obama's economy. But Vale has doubts about Romney and how he acquired his wealth.
On the other hand . . . she is unsure where Obama's health-care plan leaves her. She said that she purchased a supplemental policy that would pick up the tab where Medicare left off. Now, she said, she is not sure what will become of her insurance coverage.
"It's all up in the air, see," Vale said. "I suppose you can keep your own, but then they said they're going to make it harder to do."
She'll decide, she said, just as soon as she figures out "what this health-care thing is all about."
Other interviews in Ohio made it clear how much work remains for Romney in this vital swing state. Even after months of heavy advertising here, many voters said they don't know him. Or that they don't like what they know.
Pam Nickel, for instance.
She voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, then didn't vote at all in 2008. Now Nickel, 55, is unhappy with Obama's health-care law — believing that its mandate to buy coverage is too onerous and that the new system might lead to waiting lists and bad doctors.
"I get concerned about if Obama knows really what direction he's going in or if he's just sort of shooting from the hip," said Nickel, a teacher. "Like the health care: I think he just wants to get [it] in place. But that doesn't mean what he has right now is the best thing that should be in place."
But that doesn't make her a Romney voter. Not yet anyway. Nickel said she fears that the wealthy candidate is too aloof to recognize the needs of middle- and working-class voters.
"I don't think he's in the real world," Nickel said.
As coveted as they are, truly undecided voters such as Nickel are increasingly rare, said David J. Dent, a professor at New York University who has studied the 272 counties in the United States that voted for Bush twice and then went Democratic, switching to Obama in 2008. It is here that voters are most conflicted. "People do not feel like [Obama] has lived up to those very high expectations," Dent said. "But, on the other hand . . . a lot of people feel that Romney has not provided a strong enough alternative."
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In Iron County, the undecided ponder an unhappy question. Which candidate would stop things from getting worse? This is a place that seems impossibly distant not just from the politics of Washington but from its own better past. The towns here hug a two-lane road, set down between the steep walls of the Ozarks. The shoe factory closed. The iron mines closed. Decades ago. What's left are some jobs mining lead, guarding prisons and serving tourists who zip through on their way to float the Black River.
What's left is not enough.
Locals say they've measured the recession by the people they see walking along the highway. They can still afford groceries. But not the gas to get them.
"I've got pride in not being known as a failure," Walter Spitzmiller, 68, said. He is sweating through his shirt in the combination DVD-rental store and laundromat he owns in Arcadia. Renting DVDs is a good business for this area — you need a credit card for Netflix, and many people here don't have credit cards.
But Spitzmiller still loses money. He has raided his 401(k) for three years to keep the store afloat. "Eventually, I won't be able to do it anymore," he said.
All that leaves him leaning toward Romney. He thinks Obama has already had his chance to fix places such as Iron County — and blown it.
"I don't know that I like Romney that much," Spitzmiller said. "But there's got to be a change."
But change can be risky. "The things that he's wanting to do aren't really working," Ashley Maxey, 20, said about the president. "People are still losing their homes, electric is still being shut off, jobs are not being created anywhere."
So she's against Obama. Except she likes his policies on student loans. So she might be for him. Unless he says something about gun control.
"We're all about our guns," Maxey said.
The Signer Senior Center in the Arcadia Valley is a regular haunt for many of the valley's retirees. On Thursday, about a dozen sat at a long table eating hot dogs, french fries and watermelon. Many said they had hope for Obama when they voted for him in 2008, but the results have been disappointing.
Barbara Spurlock, 78, shook her head. "I just don't like them fussing at each other like they do," she said. "They're always taking the other one down."
She used to work at a nursing home, and her husband retired from an old McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis to which he commuted two hours each way for decades. Spurlock voted for Obama, and she, too, regards him with frustration four years later. It's not the jobs; she doesn't blame him for that. Something's wrong, she just can't pinpoint what.
But Romney is out of the question. "No," she says firmly. Twice. "I'm not a Mormon, for one thing." She's a Baptist, and she's troubled by Mormons' historical association with polygamy.
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Trip Roberts's head and his gut disagree on what to do in this election.
Roberts, 34, is a former professional bowler who is now a manager at Bowl America, a bright place set among the malls and big-box stores in Henrico County outside Richmond. This is the argument from his head: He likes Obama's stance on immigration.
Roberts has a Korean grandmother and a girlfriend who is a Colombian immigrant — a legal one, he notes. He approved when Obama announced in June that his administration would stop deporting some illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children.
"At least he's got ideas," Roberts said. "At least he's moving toward something. I've never even heard what Romney's going to do. Shipping them all home is not the answer."
And Roberts, who buys his own health insurance, might also expect to benefit from Obama's health-care law.
But that's not the end of the story. For one thing, Roberts doesn't really think that things will be better after the health-care law. His father, a Vietnam War veteran who suffered a serious stroke, gets government care at a VA hospital. Roberts is not impressed.
"That's a disaster sometimes," he said. "The appointment's at 9 and this doctor's out and the appointment's not till noon. . . . On the flip side, he gets a wheelchair, and he gets the necessary care. [But] my mom's had to go through a series of paperwork — file and refile."
And then there's his gut. It's pointed him toward Romney. There's just something he doesn't like about Obama. Something he can't get over.
"I'm kind of leaning more toward Romney for the simple fact that I don't trust Obama," Roberts said. "He just seems too good a talker. It's too suave."
Henrico County makes a semicircle around Richmond, fanning out to the northeast and northwest. It has grown from a mostly white, rural area in recent decades to one of the more populous and racially diverse areas of Virginia.
In the same county, 37-year-old preschool director Sharonda Jones said she felt a surge of pride when Obama — a fellow African American — became president. But, to the surprise of her friends, she's wavering.
It's the economy. Jones was out of work for six months. Her husband had to get a new job with a 90-minute commute.
So far, she's seen nothing in the barrage of negative presidential TV ads that makes her want to vote for Romney. Jones is not impressed with his business record. "That doesn't sway me at all," she said.
But Jones, interviewed over a strawberry frappuccino at Starbucks, said she's at least considering voting for Romney. Just to give another guy a chance at the job.
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If you think the undecided are confusing, listen to the decided of Hillsborough County, surrounding Tampa.
This, for instance, is how Barb Frisco, a 53-year-old crossing guard, made her choice:
She's not very excited about Obama's handling of the economy. But she is an abortion rights advocate. She and her family depend on food stamps for some meals. She barely missed being laid off by the city of St. Petersburg this year and worries that the next budget cut could mean her job.
And, finally, Frisco worries that her own Mormon church might meddle in the decisions of a President Romney.
"Somehow, I think the church is going to get involved, and I don't think that's how our country should work," she said. She is for Obama.
Mark H. Smith, 52, is an architect from suburban Ridgewood Park. He's been unemployed since about the time Obama took office.
"It's devastating and frustrating," Smith said while picking up his two children, ages 7 and 10, from summer camp at the Kate Jackson Community Center in Tampa. "It's hard to get up every day. There's not a lot to look forward to."
Smith said his wife is still employed as an architect, which has kept his family out of dire straits. He doesn't blame the president for the sputtering economy. "Obama inherited so much that's not his fault," he said.
Smith said he might have found work by now if not for Republicans such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who helped kill a proposed light-rail line between Tampa and Orlando. "I might have been hired to design the stations, or it could have opened up other jobs as firms became busy," he said. "Those projects have a trickle-down effect."
David Norrie, 39, works in orthopedic sales. He worries about the medical-device tax from Obama's health-care law because it will affect his employer.
Norrie also worries about another Obama proposal: The president has asked Congress to raise tax rates on anyone earning more than $250,000 per year.
So far, however, neither of Obama's ideas has done Norrie any measurable harm. His job is still there. And his income isn't high enough to be affected by the proposed tax hike.
Norrie goes on worrying. What if he does ever make that much money? "What's the incentive when the more you make, the more they take?" he said.
And what if the company already has secret plans to lay him off? "If they do, they're not telling us," he said. "They wouldn't want to worry anyone. People might start looking for new jobs if they did."
He's for Romney.
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Zapotosky reported from Ohio, Brown from Missouri, Vozzella from Virginia, Hicks from Florida and Fahrenthold from Washington.