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Approaching presidential debates, voters talked about what's on their minds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 23, 2008 - Maybe it IS the economy, stupid. But it's also the environment, the war, education, abortion, immigration, fuel prices, taxes, retirement and a seemingly endless list of other issues - both large and small - that could prove crucial in deciding how St. Louisans will vote in the upcoming presidential election.

In the days leading to Friday's first debate between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, many voters say they are more interested than ever before in the process of picking America's new leader. And while a few say they will be watching football or will simply be too busy to tune in, others describe it as historic, must-see TV.

Here then is a sampling of views from area voters who say they will be taking in the drama Friday evening:

The Watcher: Carol Stulce, an elementary school teacher from Ballwin, didn't give her age.

The Big Issue: The economy because it's "where my retirement money is. It's scary."

Other Issues: Education and the war in Iraq. "Children in other countries are doing so much better than ours" in education.

What She Will Be Looking For in the Debates: "I'm really going to be looking at how they answer questions. Do they seem sincere? How do they react when the other person is speaking: Are they giving the (other person) the right amount of respect, for example."

Could the Debates Change Her Mind? "I'm . . . not committed (to a specific candidate). I think what we are looking for is one of those persons to grab us and make us say, 'Wow, this is the person I want to really support and this is what I'm looking for.' "

The Watchers: Ben Tancock, 19, of Crestwood and Patrick Meyers, 25, of South County, employees of a St. Louis area landscaping company. Tancock is also a part-time student at Meramec Community College, and Meyers is a musician with the group "Barnacle Billy and the Zebra Mussels."

The Big Issue: For both, high gas prices are a top priority. Says Tancock, "I'm a kid; I drive everywhere." Says Meyers, "I am a musician and I travel a lot, and that has been killing us." Meyers says he strongly supports development of alternative fuels and is less enthusiastic about oil drilling in areas like Alaska to increase petroleum production.

Other Issues: Both said the poor state of the overall U.S. economy and the war in Iraq are important issues. Both have had family members deployed to Iraq. "Either do what you went over there to do, or get out," says Tancock. Says Meyers, "It's the same story over and over again. It doesn't seem like they are making any real progress."

What They Will Be Looking For in the Debates: "I'm just going to see how they address the issues," says Tancock. "A lot of people like McCain because he has been a prisoner of war. But I think Obama is much more intelligent."

Could the Debates Change Their Minds? Both men say they likely will vote for Obama, but both also said that something could happen to make them opt for the other candidate, although Meyers said that is less likely to happen for him. The difference, he says, is the candidates' views on the Iraq War. "I'm not sure what (McCain) could say," Tancock says, "but he could come up with something (to change Tancock's vote)."

The Watcher: Chris Johnson, 33, vice president of Mary "One" Johnson Home Team Realty of St. Louis

The Big Issue: The economy because "people are hurting, and it's across the board. Gas prices are astronomical, food prices are high and people are losing their jobs. I have never seen such disparity when it comes to the mega-rich and the middle class.''

Other Issues: Foreign policy and education. "Our place in the world is not what it used to be. In what direction are they going to take us? Are they going to pulls us out of Iraq in a timely fashion? Are we going to open a dialogue with Iran? Are we going to begin to use diplomacy?"

What He Will Be Looking for in the Debates: "What plans they have for the country and what their ideals are. I would like to feel comfortable with whoever wins. ''

Could the Debates Change His Mind? Johnson says he's an Obama supporter, and "my mind is set. The only thing that would change my opinion is if the candidate appears to be waffling, or changing positions to pander to voters. Don't say what I want to hear; say what I need to hear."

The Watcher: Richard Patton, age 60, of St. Louis County, director of Vision for Children at Risk, a nonprofit group trying to bring together agencies, people and resources to address the needs of the region's children.

The Big Issue: The economy. "The gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider, and the middle class is disappearing. More and more of the country's fiscal resources are becoming concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the population."

Other Issues: Energy, the environment, the war in Iraq and the well-being of America's children. "We need to start moving now in the direction of energy independence." Too many people, he says, continue to advocate what he calls "the old and eventually doomed policy of 'drill, drill, drill.' " Also, he says American must invest in its children - in health care, early childhood development, quality schools and employment skills. "If we follow the political winds and invest a disproportionate share of our financial resources and human capital in providing for the retirement and health care needs of an aging population, somewhere down the road we will find ourselves going over a social and economic cliff."

What He Will be Looking for in the Debates: He says the "theatrical aspects of the debate don't much interest me." Instead, he will be looking for "responses that outline policies and strategies that align with reality rather than ideology" -- sincerity coupled with "effective solutions."

Could the Debates Change His Mind? A supporter of Obama, he notes that while "anything is possible, it is hard for me to conceive of what might transpire . . . that could change the way I think about this range of issues, or alter my vote."

The Watcher: Keli Richards, 22, of South St. Louis County, who operates Embroider the Occasion, a retail embroidery store, in Webster Groves.

The Big Issue: Taxes and the struggles of small businesses. "You hear about corporate tax breaks and tax breaks for the middle class; it always ends up snowballing and hitting the small business. We're not a huge operation, so even if it's another tax for $50 a year, $50 is $50. It seems like it's just taxes, taxes, taxes."

Other Issues: The increasing costs of fuel and the issue of immigration. "I know it might sound crazy, but people coming into the country is not, in itself, necessarily a bad thing. The second you shut the door, you stop learning and you stop growing and you stop connecting to other countries."

What She will be Looking for in the Debates: "I'm suspicious of the candidate who offers too much. I would rather have somebody offer less, but more tangible things, than try to promise the world." Appearance and speaking ability is less of a concern, she says. "My favorite president of all time was George Washington. He was not a good speaker, and he did a lot."

Could the Debates Change Her Mind? Probably not. She strongly supports John McCain and believes the debate will strengthen her enthusiasm for him. Still, she says, she will watch the campaign with interest. "There is a 50 percent chance he (Obama) could be president. So you don't want to go into this not knowing anything about him."

The Watcher: Dan Golby, 26, of Manchester, operator of a St. Louis County karate studio.

The Big Issue: Abortion. "I am very prolife. I think it is very important. I'm a Catholic and it's been a big issue for me for as long as I can remember. I have always thought it was pretty outrageous."

Other Issues: The economy and, especially, concern over liberal spending policies. "When the government subsidizes something, the overall economy goes down. I think Barack Obama will do a lot of government programs and support a lot of government subsidies," which will end up putting the country deeper into debt and further cripple the economy.

What He will be Looking for in the Debate: He says he will be looking specifically at Obama's promises to the American people. "I'm curious as to how he will be able to do a lot of the things he say he is going to do."

Could the Debates Change His Mind? "Probably not." He says the decision to add Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket made his decision to vote for McCain much easier. "McCain is a little wishy-washy; she is definitely more conservative." Still, he remains very interested in the debates. "I am going to watch; I am going to listen."

The Watcher: Bret Kuhlman, age 35, of St. Louis, a 3-D animator and graphics designer.

The Big Issue: The economy and his ability to pursue "the American dream." "I'm just starting out. I am getting married shortly," and he wants to make sure he has enough money "to get by."

Other Issues: The war in Iraq. "We're spending billions of dollars in Iraq and we can't figure out how to get out of there (without losing more lives)." He also says it is important to "leave a country that can function on its own so that we can make sure we have stability in the Middle East. Personally, I know it (the debate over the war) is not as simple as black and white, but I think that getting out would be better."

What He Will Be Looking for in the Debate: He says he has been impressed by the poise and speaking ability of Obama, but says he wants more of his candidate. "We hear a lot about changes, but I don't understand what those changes are and how they're going to affect me directly."

Could the Debates Change His Mind? He says he remains undecided about the presidential elections and says he might pick out something from the debate that will swing his support to one candidate or the other. "It could go either way. We'll have to wait and see what happens."

The Watcher: Israel Grayes, 66, of Mulberry Grove, Ill., a custodian at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The Big Issue: Lack of leadership, especially in the African-American community. "We got to have some people coming out of our community, out of the ghetto, to help put these people on the right track. Children are having children; the young people are out pushing dope and robbing and stealing. Whites and blacks. We are sick, and I am not talking about physically sick. I'm talking about mentally sick."

Other Issues: The economy, especially "all these companies going out of business and people losing their homes, their cars, their jobs. I see it." He also is concerned about the inability to inspire young people to work and the lack of good training programs and quality education. "The young generation, the way it's going. There isn't any future for them."

What He Will Be Looking For in the Debates: "They're all going to make promises, but when they get to the White House, it's an altogether different ballgame. The winner will be the one who tells the most lies and impresses the public the most. That's the way it always is."

Could the Debates Change His Mind? "I've been a Democrat all my life, so you know I am going Democrat. You know that."

Robert Joiner and Mary Delach Leonard contributed to this story.

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