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Trump or Clinton as commander-in-chief? It could swing Virginia

In the state that’s home to the Pentagon at one end and to a big part of the Navy at the other, the question of who would be a better commander-in-chief of the military could determine who wins the state and perhaps the presidency.

“That may be the make or break question,” said media strategist Frank Luntz, after a three-hour focus group in suburban Washington with 30 undecided voters from the battleground state of Virginia.

They made it clear they don’t trust Hillary Clinton and don’t like Donald Trump. Assuming they vote, they’ll have to answer who is best suited to lead the world’s strongest military power.

“It’s the day after the election and you turn on your TV. It’s not who do want to see. It’s who don’t you want to see,” said Luntz. “That to me is the determinant of who wins the election.”

That’s why, he said, the Sept. 26 debate could be a turning point in shifting or cementing voters’ impressions. The session reiterated the notion that either Trump or Clinton could still win the election, but the victor has to at least grudgingly pass the gravitas, maturity and stature tests.

“The candidate who says less and says it more quietly wins,” Luntz said.

So far, no one is getting high marks from these undecided voters, who make up about 10 percent of the electorate.

Clinton has 41.9 percent, Trump 40.8 percent, Johnson, 8.3 percent, Stein 2.7 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics’ national poll average

Luntz went around the room and asked voters to describe Clinton and Trump in one word. Virtually no one had anything nice to say.

The words deceitful and untrustworthy came up repeatedly for Clinton, as well as liar, crooked and corrupt. Trump was described by several as a bigot, as well as phony, crazy, arrogant and garbage.

There were no good choices. “I trust him more (but) he’s a buffoon and a clown,” said John Street, a retiree, of Trump. Twelve of the 30 said they’d consider voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson.

The voters were well aware, though, they were choosing the next commander-in-chief, which worked against Johnson and to some extent Trump.

Half said Trump was more likely to start a war, and only two said they would want Trump as commander-in-chief.

Ten cited Clinton, but most were shaky about both candidates. “They’d both get us into war,” said Cameron Scott, a bus driver. But they’d approach it very differently, he said.

“Hillary would think it’s the best option. Trump would do it because someone made him mad. He’s so vindictive,” Scott said.

Clinton’s past, though, was a brake on even scant support for her. Participants were given a list of 24 quotes or actions by Clinton and asked what bothered them most.

Nearly everyone was troubled by her comments in a February interview with CBS’ Scott Pelley “I don’t believe I ever have” lied to the American people. Most were also bothered by her attempting to joke about whether she tried to wipe her whole e-mail server. “What? Like with a cloth or something?” she said.

I’m going to do my best to level with the American people Hillary Clinton to CBS’ Scott Pelley, part of a quote that bothered most people in the Luntz focus group about Clinton

Several criticized the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute her for any misuse of her private email server while secretary of state. Some voters said they’d be fired or charged if they did the same.

“She lied about lying,” said William Sanders, a retiree.

But, the group was asked, is that worse than what they see in Trump? Few could say for sure.

They were given a list of 23 Trump statements or actions. Nearly everyone said they were troubled most by three: His insulting of the Khans, the Muslim parents of a soldier killed in Iraq; Sen. John McCain, the former North Vietnam prisoner of war Trump said was not a war hero, and Judge Gonzalo Curiel, an Indiana-born Mexican-American who Trump said could not be fair to him because “he’s a Mexican.” Curiel was overseeing a fraud case against Trump University.

“Why can’t he get off this crazy talk?” asked Lynn Smith, a sales vice president.

The group watched ads from the candidates and their supporters, and largely disliked the attack ads.

“They’re both screaming, both yelling,” said Mary Anne Amstutz, a first aid instructor.

The audience didn’t want to hear more about this week’s controversies involving Clinton’s health or Trump’s concession that Obama was in fact born in this country. They did want to hear more about exactly what the candidates will do to help them. They watched ads with vague promises about jobs or Social Security, and found they offered few new or specific ideas. AARP sponsored the focus group.

“They’re both speaking words that don’t mean anything,” said Leigh Smith, a database administrator.

The election, Luntz said, is between a candidate who’s distrusted and one who’s disliked.

“These guys are not getting any benefit of the doubt,” he said. “If the election is defined by whether you like or dislike Hillary Clinton, she loses. If the election is defined by what you think of Donald Trump, he loses.”

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