"Neither party has me."
That assertion from Jay Beatty, a 30-something institutional-bonds salesman in St. Petersburg, Fla., sums up the view of a small but crucial slice of the electorate: the undecided.
And it's not that Mr. Beatty hasn't thought about the election, now less than a week away. It's that he looks at President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry and sees a mix of good and not so good. On domestic policy, he's with Senator Kerry, but on international, he's with the president. Then there are personal qualities.
"The debates pushed me one way; I think that Bush is more believable," says Beatty, a registered independent whose wife is expecting their first child. "I think Kerry is a smarter man, but smarter is not necessarily the best politically."
For the campaigns, figuring out how to snag uncommitted battleground-state voters like Jay Beatty represents the Holy Grail of another nail-biter election. Pollsters are finding there's no one easy-to-define group to pursue. Typically, women decide later than men, and nationally, that's the case this year, but only slightly. In Colorado, another battleground, there are more male undecideds than female, says Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.
The polls don't even agree on how many undecideds and "persuadables" there are in the country. One recent Gallup Poll found so few undecided voters that the number rounded down to zero. The Pew Research Center, which doesn't push its respondents as hard as others to state a preference, puts the figure at 9 percent undecided and another 11 percent as open to switching.
But pollsters agree there's no silver- bullet issue that will bring those final voters home. And they're not even sure if the historical precedent - that people who decide late tend to vote against the incumbent - will hold this time, because of a possible new post-9/11 dynamic that could make voters, ultimately, fear a change of leadership.
In Florida, the undecideds are "all over the place" when it comes to determining the most important issue, says independent pollster Del Ali. "For example, Iraq's important to them, the economy is important to them, so is homeland security," says Mr. Ali. "It's a mixed bag. That's what really makes this thing mind-boggling."
Among the decided, Kerry voters tend to be more issues-oriented, while Bush voters more often cite personal qualities, such as leadership and likability. A Pew poll last week found that among swing voters, the flip-flopper charge against Kerry is more damaging than calling him a liberal. Two major charges against Bush - that he misled the public on Iraq and favors the rich - are "equally troubling to swing voters," reports Pew.
As the final days count down, some busy voters like Lori Mulvihill, of suburban Pittsburgh, know they can't put off their decision much longer. A mother of two who teaches part-time while getting a master's degree in education, she's even thought about not voting.
"I feel guilty, I'm not as informed as I should be," she says. "But yes, I will vote." There's too much at stake: the war, homeland security (especially with family in New York), and schools. "No Child Left Behind is a total mess," she says, eventually concluding that her "voting issue" will be education.
In suburban Philadelphia, Nick Greene is also still figuring out what to do. "I question Bush's intelligence, but I'm not sure what Kerry would do about the war," says Mr. Greene, who works in retail sales at Nordstrom. In the last election, he appreciated Bush's "casual, laid-back attitude." But in a post-9/11 world, he is not so sure. He calls Kerry "very well-spoken." But "how is that going to come across after we've had another attack?"
In Gilbertsville, Pa., salon and day spa manager Alison Mastrocola says she's never been undecided this late in a campaign. Her biggest concern is making a wise decision about US policy in the Middle East. Though "basically a Republican," she concedes she is a "little nervous" about Bush's policies in Iraq. Still, she's leaning his way, because she believes that "for a president to be truly effective, he needs more than one term."
Besides, Ms. Mastrocola says, "I haven't heard anything out of Kerry." In the end, "I'll probably decide as I stand there [in the booth] and let everything play through my mind again."
In Las Vegas, more than a quarter of registered voters have already cast their ballots early - but plenty are still deciding.
"It's really very difficult," says Jane Gregory, who is married with three children. "We have to worry about terrorism, but I just don't feel comfortable with what's happening in Iraq. I'll probably end up voting for Bush, but I hope he knows what he's doing."
The war in Iraq also torments Josh Griego, 20, but for different reasons. Griego says he believes the Iraq invasion was the right move and he worries about what Kerry might do as president. Yet he's on Kerry's side when it comes to domestic issues. "I want to make sure that abortion remains legal," says Griego, who parks cars at a casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
Indeed, competing issues have kept many unsure of how to cast their votes. Wendell Huntington vehemently opposes the war in Iraq, but he hates the notion that same-sex marriages could become legal unless Bush is in office, he says.
"On the one hand, we have this modern-day Vietnam and on the other hand we have this modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah," says the Las Vegas shoe-store owner. "How do you pick between this and that?"
For some Nevadans, all politics is local: Specifically, it boils down to the question of whether the nation should dump its nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas. That matter has octogenarian Beatrice Zalob on the fence. Like most voters here, she opposes using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear-waste disposal site; Kerry says he would kill the project.
"I need to do a little bit more research, because I like that Kerry seems to want to look out for this state if we vote for him," says Ms. Zalob, a retired school teacher originally from Canton, Ohio. "The problem is, if he's saying that and he doesn't actually have the power to do anything about it, I'll vote for Bush. I think."
• Steve Friess in Las Vegas, Lynn Harvey in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Mary Beth McCauley in Philadelphia contributed to this report.