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Undecideds Find ‘Same Old Rhetoric’ in Debate 2

The second presidential debate left swing voters like Doug Brunswick and Phil Pitts stuck in the same place Tuesday night: undecided.

Neither Democrat Barack Obama nor Republican John McCain swayed the two retired men, despite 90 minutes of discussion at Belmont University in Nashville on topics that included the faltering economy and crossing Pakistan’s border.

“I haven’t heard them talk about the things I want to hear,” says Brunswick, a retiree from the Cleveland exurbs who has voted Democratic in recent presidential campaigns. “Most of it is the same old rhetoric I’ve been hearing for six months.”

Brunswick said he is so mad at both parties—and Washington—that he’s an independent now. This year he is leaning toward voting for “none of the above.”

Pitts, 64, is a retired teacher from the Pittsburgh suburbs. He usually votes Republican in presidential races.

Both Pitts and Brunswick said Obama probably narrowly “won” the debate, but not by enough to earn their votes. “There was no TKO on any issue,” Pitts says. But Obama, after just four years as a U.S. senator from Illinois, “proved he can answer really tough questions with someone who has served more than 20 years” as a senator from Arizona.

The second debate was the only one in a town hall format, which had moderator and former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw choosing questions from undecided voters in the audience and from among 25,000 questions submitted over the Internet. Brunswick was disappointed that Brokaw’s selections didn’t address issues like illegal immigration and gun control. He’s opposed to both. “We outsource jobs, then bring in immigrants to do the work,” he says.

But as a retiree on a fixed income, Brunswick said the economy is also a big issue—and it dominated the first hour of the debate. A Medicare beneficiary, Brunswick is retired from the construction industry, where he worked in jobs ranging from union carpenter to business owner.

Pitts said Obama made a better connection with middle-class voters during the debate. “He proved he understood the pulse of the nation—that many of us are suffering,” Pitts says. “He tied it to Bush’s presidency and McCain’s votes in the Senate.”

Brunswick’s disillusionment has been fueled by both candidates’ support for a $700 billion rescue bill that pumped money into the financial industry: “The bailout was absolutely the biggest scam in the world. They gave them all the money with no more regulation than they had before.”

Pitts agreed: “Both of them are pawns of Wall Street.”

Pitts also said McCain presented himself as someone who works across party lines while failing to do so to keep the financial industry in check. “He’s always talking about reaching across the aisle. Well, I’ll tell you, his arms are pretty short,” Pitts says. “Why didn’t they come up with a plan to stop those CEOs from getting all of this severance pay and bonuses?”

Pitts noted that the bonuses he received as a schoolteacher involved after-shave and home-baked cookies, not million-dollar golden parachutes like some executives at failing financial firms have received.

The Republican also didn’t think much of McCain’s proposal to aid homeowners hurt by the housing market credit problems. But independent Brunswick liked what he heard. “That’s what they should have done in the first place, rather than give it to corporations,” Brunswick says.

On other domestic issues, McCain’s proposal for a $5,000-per-family tax credit for health insurance costs didn’t impress either Pitts or Brunswick, who called it “fuzzy math.” But Pitts said he doesn’t want new taxes and trusts the Republican more than Obama not to raise them.

Pitts also said McCain’s call for reining in entitlement programs like Social Security only served to remind him of Republican plans to put some Social Security funds in private stock market funds: “If Social Security had been privatized before all this [meltdown in the financial markets], where do you think everyone would be with their Social Security today?”

Brunswick said he was more impressed with McCain’s answers on foreign policy than domestic issues, but “he’s too much of a warmonger.”

Pitts thought Obama scored points by pressing for more U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and tying the Iraq war—which McCain supported—to the shift of troops away from Afghanistan.

Pitts came away from the first McCain-Obama debate leaning toward Obama. But he was pleasantly surprised by Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin after last week’s debate with Democrat Sen. Joe Biden. Now, Pitts said, he’s going to wait until next week’s final debate to make a decision.

In the meantime, Pitts will show up at a bakery in western Pennsylvania each morning and sit between warring factions of retirees on the political left and right, biding his time.

And Brunswick’s Ohio yard will be brimming with signs for local Democratic candidates—any for Obama conspicuously missing.

Tamara Lytle was Washington bureau chief and correspondent for the Orlando Sentinel from 1997 to 2008.

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