By CHARLES BABINGTON
PURCELLVILLE, Va. — Undecided voters in swing states hold the key to the presidential election, but neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama has an easy recipe for winning them over.
Friday’s new jobs report, even if dismal for incumbent President Obama, might do little to help challenger Romney with this group.
Undecided voters interviewed this week said they place little importance on such statistics, even though both campaigns mine them for every possible advantage.
Instead, these voters want more details about Romney’s economic proposals and Bain Capital record, less bickering between the parties and a greater sense of inspiration and leadership from both candidates.
Some of them acknowledge that’s a vague wish list. But with less than a dozen states in play, and polls showing that about 10 percent of the electorate remains undecided, this sliver of hard-to-please Americans could decide the Nov. 6 election.
Scott Davison, who works at a bicycle shop in Purcellville, Va., is typical of on-the-fence voters interviewed this week in Virginia, Ohio and Florida. Romney has a chance to dissuade him from his inclination toward Obama, Davison said, but the former Massachusetts governor must offer more details about how he would improve the economy.
“I’m not seeing anything substantial that Romney has to offer,” said Davison, 40, who lives in politically competitive Loudoun County. “I’m just seeing superficial stuff.”
Davison, who studied economics at Colorado State University and weighs his words before speaking, said he puts little campaign stock in monthly employment reports.
Elected officials, he said, “can help steer policy. But it’s like the QE2. If you make a change up at the bow, it’s going to take miles and miles to turn it around.”
Forty miles south, in the Washington exurb of Manassas, Va., Chuck Neal is no fan of Obama, but Romney hasn’t locked down his vote. TV ads criticizing Romney’s time at the private-equity company Bain Capital have raised questions for Neal, 50, a manager at a busy millworking plant.
Romney has a record of “sending business overseas and taking it away from us,” Neal said, reciting a theme from the frequently run ads, which Romney disputes. “We don’t have a lot of good choices.”
Mike McKenna, a Virginia-based Republican researcher who conducts focus groups of undecided voters nationwide, said he’s not surprised by such comments. The barrage of Democratic TV ads attacking Romney’s record at Bain, he said, “has done a lot of damage.”
Virginia’s unemployment rate is well below the national average. But Florida’s is not, and the state still suffers from a collapse in housing prices.
Despite those differences, undecided voters in south Florida expressed many of the same sentiments as Virginians: a reluctance to read too much into monthly job reports and a hunger for more information about Romney’s business background and economic plans.
Win Hoffman, 81, a retired architect from Lauderhill, said he watches the monthly jobs reports but they don’t determine his vote for president.
“Neither candidate and neither party really has that much to say, or that much to do, about the economy,” Hoffman said. “Not even the chairman of the Federal Reserve has that much control.”
“We can’t control Greece and Portugal and Italy,” he added.
Hoffman, who registers as a Democrat but considers himself an independent, said he is not impressed by the fortune Romney made directing Bain Capital.
“Business success is often being in the right place at the right time with the right amount of capital,” he said. “I’m more impressed with the worldly outlook that a presidential candidate can demonstrate to me — absolute sincerity for the welfare of this country and its citizens. And as of this moment, Governor Romney doesn’t project that kind of attitude as much as President Obama does.”
Hoffman said he is not personally affected by the economic slump. That’s not the case, however, for Doris Morgan, 58, of Venice, Fla.
She was a social worker and administrative assistant before quitting work to care for her aging parents. She is now unable to find work outside of low-paying retail and restaurant jobs.
A disillusioned lifelong Democrat who’s thinking of switching her registration to independent, Morgan said, “I’m not happy with either party. I don’t think they represent my voice.”
“They’re constantly finding fault with each other instead of finding a solution,” she said. She doesn’t blame Obama, but she adds, “I’m not overwhelmed with his presidential presentation.”
Morgan supported the 2010 health care law but questions the way it was written. Federal spending? She wants to see fiscal responsibility but worries about cutting back too much.
Morgan said she reads the federal government’s job numbers each month, but they don’t sway her politically because “we’re in a global economy” that Washington cannot control.
Regarding employment, she said, “I really wish I could have a job.”
Neil Matlins, an investment adviser in Hollywood, Fla., is another undecided voter who says he watches the employment reports without letting them determine his presidential choice.
“This is summertime,” said Matlins, 66. “The numbers are what they are.”
A former Obama voter now registered as a Republican, Matlins said he would like to be convinced that either candidate will take decisive action on immigration, a balanced budget and taxation. He feels progress on those issues has been lost amid partisan squabbling.
“I’m going to be watching to see which candidate stays away from vilifying statements, either against their opponent or the policies of their opponent,” Matlins said. “It poisons the atmosphere.”
In central Ohio, Don Athey of Galloway said Obama has fallen short of some earlier presidents’ records.
“When Ronald Reagan was president, I had a lot of money in my pocket,” said Athey, 49, a computer systems analyst. “When Bill Clinton was president, I had a lot of money in my pocket. Right now, I don’t.”
In trying to decide whom to support, he said, “it’s a matter of trying to determine which guy is going to get us from point A to point B the quickest and the best. I think Mr. Obama has made a lot of good effort, but I have a lot of respect for Mr. Romney too.”
In Hilliard, another Columbus suburb, high school history teacher Krislynn Wright, 36, is a swing voter who is pessimistic about the economy. She voted for George W. Bush in 2004, for Obama in 2008 and is undecided in this year’s race.
Wright said she is concerned about the cost of the new health care law and the size of the national debt. She said she will keep an eye on Friday’s jobs report but believes a healthy economy is a way off.
“I would love to say we’re out of a recession,” Wright said, “but we have more kids on free and reduced lunch than I’ve ever seen before at my school.”
Back in Florida, in Nokomis, Steve Cinnamon has endured tough times, but he still isn’t sure Obama should be replaced.
Cinnamon, 66, once owned a media buying company. He moved to Florida about seven years ago, but couldn’t find a job and ultimately lost his house to foreclosure and went into bankruptcy.
A registered Republican who voted for John McCain in 2008, Cinnamon gets by on his monthly Social Security check of about $1,900, and sales of cigar-box guitars that he makes.
Given his background, Cinnamon might seem a likely Romney supporter. But Romney hasn’t closed the deal, even as Obama has failed to inspire.
Speaking of both candidates, the economy and Mideast politics, Cinnamon said: “I’m waiting for him to come out with something where you say, ‘Oh my gosh, why didn’t he say this before?”’
Obama and Romney have fewer than 100 days to move these voters off the fence.