"After watching the first two debates, I was just more confused," said Greg, 40, an insurance agent who is a registered Democrat but a fairly conservative guy, especially since daughters Emily, 3, and Leah, seven months, came along. "I was leaning Bush in the beginning, but I've been back and forth ever since."
"He's been back and forth every day," said Virginia, 37, an education consultant and former teacher who grew up in New Jersey and relocated here after college. Not that she knew which campaign poster to plant in the front lawn either. She doesn't trust Bush with the nation's public schools, and she kind of liked Gore at first. But it was a brief affair with a cold fish. "I watched very closely," she said of the final debate. "I wanted either Bush or Gore to give me a reason to like [him]."
It didn't happen. And the Harrells' problem is one that was voiced over and over in three days of interviews in a fast-growing, politically moderate area the Bush and Gore camps consider up for grabs and critical to their success. With a handful of exceptions, even voters who have decided on a candidate said they weren't thrilled with their choice. "Bush is the lesser of two evils," said Joe Spencer, 45, an electrical technician. Betty Ford, retired from the construction business at 52, felt the same way about Gore. "I just find him so what's the word? unbelievable. But it'll probably be Gore. The economy is good."
"Floridians have candidate fatigue at this point," says Susan MacManus, who teaches political science at the University of South Florida. She's only half right. They have politics fatigue. The campaign seems like an insufferably long extension of the Clinton scandal and the partisan bickering that followed. And now, after a year of campaigning that felt like 10, Floridians are subjected to a daily assault of vapid 30-second TV spots that seem designed to lower the national IQ.
"I'm not a masochist," said Don Fletcher, 57, a telecommunications consultant who was asked over coffee at the mall if he was tuned in to the campaign. Kind of tough to get caught up in it, others said, when one candidate has the burden of proving he's not a goober in a nice suit, and the other is forever trying on personalities the way some people try on shoes.
"The process turns you off, and it's got to where I don't even know who's lying and who's telling the truth anymore," said Ford, who moved to Central Florida 15 years ago from Atlantic City, N.J.
If you believe his mother, Bush is the one you can trust. She said so in a message she left on Ford's answering machine (and thousands of others in Florida) in which she extolled her son's virtues. It was a smart move, given Barbara Bush's likability, unless you happen to think it underscores George W.'s lack of political maturity. It's like the guy needs a permission slip from Mom saying it's OK for Dubya to go on the field trip to the White House.
Mom's phone work is an indication of the all-out war over the nation's fourth biggest basket of electoral votes. It is a state Bush can't afford to lose, especially with the humiliation that would come from tanking in a place where brother Jeb is governor. But Gore, sniffing blood in the water, has sharked up and down the state trying to make the kill.
So how does it break down? MacManus sees it this way: Gore takes South Florida by dominating among elderly voters, many of them liberal Northeastern transplants. Bush grabs the conservative Panhandle up north. And the race is decided in the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa Bay, where people are less inclined toward blind faith in their own party. It's an area full of transplanted boomers from the North and young families drawn to relatively affordable housing and good jobs in high-tech fields, health care and financial services.
Gore is probably fine in Tampa, provided he gets a good turnout among blacks, Hispanics and working-class whites. Many of the Cuban and Italian graybeards who drink big, foamy cups of café con leche and talk politics every morning at the La Ideal Cafeteria and the West Tampa Sandwich Shop said they are going to stick with the Democratic ticket, even though Gore is like a bowl of black beans without the onions and spice. "I like Gore on Social Security and the environment," said Carlos Reyes, 55, who runs a medical billing company. But Reyes says people will have to be dragged to the polls, disgusted with "politicians who would sell their own children" if there were money or votes in the transaction. Look at the Firestone scandal, Reyes said, in which consumer protection was a secondary consideration in the regulatory process. "It's because of all these lobbyists buying protection for their clients."
Wayne Garcia, a Tampa political consultant, believes the race will be decided east of the city, in places like Brandon, a microcosm of the mostly white middle-class suburbs along I-4. Brandon, with roughly 120,000 people and a mall instead of a downtown, is America. It's a sprawling, unincorporated, amorphous mess, as devoid of soul as the candidates themselves. With two Waffle Houses within a mile of each other and tract houses sprouting like mushrooms, the place is still growing daily, and the politics of growth is always more conservative than the politics of decline.
Tom Lee, the Republican state senator who won his last election in the district 61 percent to 39 percent, says people care about tax relief, education that includes choices for their children, and the moral direction of the country. Not good news for Gore. On the subject of moral direction, people act as if Al had been in the room with a Polaroid while Bill turned Monica into a patriot, as if the only way for America finally to exorcise the beast and move on is to drive a stake through Gore's heart.
"I'm tired of the moral degradation," said Joe Spencer's wife Nancy, 52, a switchboard operator. "In my book, what you do in your personal life does matter."
"I got chills in the second debate," said Matthew Coffey, 43, the only interviewee in three days who was wildly passionate about either candidate, and possibly the only person without malaria who got chills during any of the debates. Coffey, who owns an advertising company in Brandon, said Bush is going to shrink the government, whack taxes, let people invest their own Social Security funds, keep the U.S. out of foreign skirmishes and give parents school vouchers. "I listen to Rush Limbaugh all the time," Coffey said. "And Rush is right. Do you know what I mean? Rush is right."
No, Matthew. Don Fletcher is right. "Kakistocracy. Are you familiar with that word?" Fletcher asked while nursing his coffee at the Bill O' Fare. "It means government by the worst elements. We've got a failed drug war the candidates won't talk about, and we bombed an aspirin factory in Sudan because Bill was [dallying with] Monica. It doesn't matter whether you vote Republican or Democratic. Nothing will change because the government is run by big-money interests."
Across the mall at Ruby Tuesday, the television was tuned to pro bowling during the final debate, and after a couple of beers you couldn't tell the difference. Across the street, at the Waffle House between the Steak N Shake and Crabby Tom's Seafood, TIME magazine conducted a poll at least as scientific and useful as any of the others you get bombarded with daily. There were five diners in the room. Asked whom they like, there was a groan or two. Pressed to answer, four took Bush; one liked Gore. Asked, Why Gore? he said, "I'd like you to leave me alone now."
Campaign fatigue. Hang in there, pal. One more week, and we'll all borrow your line.