VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The presidential campaigns are hounding the holdouts -- the sliver of the electorate still not sure which candidate will get their vote.
The late-night comics and cable TV pundits are hounding them too - saying they're clueless, ill-informed and out of touch with the news. Their point: after four years, two conventions, four debates and millions in TV spots, how clueless do you have to be to call yourself "undecided"?
Don't put it that way to Lisa Lascara, a 27-year old stay-at-home mom who lives here with her three-year-old son.
She prefers the president on issues like abortion, employer-provided contraception and equal pay for women. But she is very worried about her mounting student loan debt and her job prospects.
"I'm just not really sure. I voted for Obama last time and I tend to trust him more," she said. "But the economy is not very good. Maybe we need something different?"
There aren't many of these wobblers left in the electorate -- 3 percent are truly undecided and 12 percent are persuadable, pollsters say. And campaigns are zeroing in on them in the homestretch, with the race within in a few percentage points nationally and within the margin of error in a handful of battleground states.
But what will make them decide? The Internet erupted when the young teacher who asked the candidates about their stance on pay for women at the town hall debate said she was still undecided, even after each man personally responded to her question at length.
"You know, I still find that I'm undecided because I was so grateful for that opportunity yesterday and I heard a lot of really wonderful responses and points but at the same time, a lot of the questions were kind of danced around more than answered explicitly," Katherine Fenton said on MSNBC. "So, like, I can't say I've come out with a preference for either side."
Her reaction sounded a lot like a viral Saturday Night Live spoof of undecideds who ponder questions like, "Who is the current president? And is he or she running?"
In a trip to one of the most unsettled parts of Virginia, where Romney has made recent grounds but the race is a dead heat, POLITICO tried to look beyond the mocking and behind the numbers -- talking to many undecideds, particularly women, who have become the focal point of both campaigns.
Many women, particularly mothers, are grappling with whether to support Romney for his ideas on the economy or Obama for his stance on social issues.
It's a choice not lost on either campaign. Obama has stayed on the offensive among women voters since the second debate, criticizing Romney for failing to come out strongly in support of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which he signed his first day in office. Romney has fired back with repeated attacks on Obama for failing women by not getting the economy moving fast enough. Both candidates mentioned women's rights abroad in the third debate on foreign policy.
Romney recast his positions on Iran and closed the night with a call for peace.
"Let me step back and talk about what I think our mission has to be in the Middle East and even more broadly, because our purpose is to make sure the world is more -- is peaceful," Romney said. "We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they're going to have a bright and prosperous future, not be at war."
The fight for women is also on the airwaves here -- and around the country.
The radio and television airwaves in Virginia Beach are saturated with ads from the campaigns and supportive super PACS aimed directly at undecided and persuadable female voters.
In one ad paid for by the Crossroads GPS super PAC supporting Romney, a woman is sitting at a kitchen table covered with bills. An Obama speech is playing on her TV in the background as the woman rips the president for over-spending. "What do we have to show for all that debt?" the woman asks. "If we are in a recovery, why are we making less?"
One of many Obama campaign ads on the air here features a worried looking woman holding her young baby while the narrator says of Romney: "Lower tax rates for him than for us."
It was the kind of ad meant to speak to voters like Jen Orr, a 36-year old cake decoration instructor who has two young boys has followed the race.
She voted for Obama in 2008, but she's been unhappy with the state of the economy and thought Romney might deserve a shot.
"Romney was a real strong presence in the first debate and Obama wasn't," Orr said. But in the second, "everyone said maybe [Obama] was too aggressive but I thought that was good," she said. "He came across as strong."
Plus Orr is unsure about Romney's plans for Medicaid, thanks to a pro-Obama ad airing in the state.
Romney's emphasis on the economy is no surprise. Social and women's health issues are clearly hurting him among younger female voters in Virginia Beach, which unlike some other areas of the state tends to swing back and forth between supporting Republican and Democratic candidates.
Shelby Lynch, 21, said during a coffee break that she agreed more with Romney on the economy but remains undecided. "Obama has not done all that he said he would do," Shelby said. "But I also don't really know if Romney would do any better."
She also said she could not tell if Romney would be very conservative on social issues as he appeared to be in the primaries or would focus almost exclusively on the economy. And she said she was turned off by the "47 percent" comment in which Romney seemed to disparage nearly half the country as dependent on government and unable to care for themselves.
"Sometimes it seems like he does not care about average people," Shelby said.
Still, stereotypes exist for a reason. In over two dozen interviews in shopping malls, coffee shops and on the streets of this politically diverse resort town in critical swing state Virginia, about a dozen people who called themselves undecided also admitted they were not really paying attention, didn't know much about either candidate and would probably not show up to vote. One young voter did not know the debates had even begun. Another confused the presidential and vice presidential nominees.
But interviews around Virginia Beach supported the idea that the race is very tight among undecided and persuadable women who have an informed decision to make.
A young chiropractor eating dinner with her two daughters at a beach-front restaurant on Wednesday night said she didn't blame Obama for the terrible economy he inherited. But she did not like his health care reform legislation and she is not thrilled at the idea of paying any higher taxes.
"I guess you could call me upper-middle class or maybe a little more. And I don't really want to give all my money back to the government," said the woman, who agreed only to be quoted by her first name, Celeste.
While she likes Romney's economic policies, she is concerned about his positions on abortion and contraception. "It's not really central to me right now, where I am in life," she said, sipping a Cabernet. Then she nodded her head at her two girls, busily munching away on French fries. "But I do worry how it will impact these two."
So who is Celeste ultimately going to choose? The answer will help decide the 2012 outcome.
"I don't know," she said. "Right now I'm not really all that thrilled with either one."
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