By Tom Foreman, CNN
TAMPA, Florida (CNN) — Just a few hundred yards from the podium where Paul Ryan spoke to the roaring Republican faithful, 27 undecided Florida voters listened intently to his words.
In their hands, they held electronic audience reaction dials, twisting them back and forth to record their approval or disapproval second by second, giving instant feedback and real-time ratings of the speech.
This is the battlefront that will determine the election: The candidate who can win the holdouts — the voters who have yet to make up their minds — will likely win the whole race this fall.
The group of voters was convened by CNN with the assistance of Southern Methodist University in Dallas communication professors Dan Schill and Rita Kirk. CNN hired the university to conduct the tests but the voters were not compensated.
Though the group members declared themselves undecided, they were not neutral.
In a series of dial test questions before the speech, the participants made it clear they are generally conservative, moderately religious and — while most called themselves independent — more leaned Republican than Democrat. Seventy-eight percent of the people in the group rated the economy or the budget deficit as the top issue in the race. Eighty-five percent indicated they believe the country is going in the wrong direction.
In short, most of the dial-testers are ready to see a change in Washington’s ways, but while they decidedly disapprove of President Barack Obama’s performance, they are ambivalent about whether Mitt Romney can or will do better.
Ryan’s speech, however, seemed to give many of them at least a mild nudge in Romney’s direction.
Nearly one in six Americans is living in poverty, the Republican congressman from Wisconsin said to the cheering crowd in the convention hall.
“Millions of young Americans have graduated from college during the Obama presidency, ready to use their gifts and get moving in life. Half of them can’t find the work they studied for, or any work at all.” In the focus group, the men ate it up.
The women lagged below the men in their approval until about halfway through the speech, when Ryan began talking about his mother’s struggles to work and raise the family following the sudden death of Ryan’s father.
“It wasn’t just a new livelihood. It was a new life. And it transformed my mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn’t just in the past.”
By and large, all the dial testers responded strongly to Ryan’s references to hard work, initiative, and maintaining the American dream. The men and women split when he talked about rolling back health care reform; men liking that idea more, women liking it less.
But here is the tough truth for Team Romney: More than half the dial testers came into the evening indicating that if they had to vote right now, “undecided” would still win by a landslide.
— CNN’s Eric Marrapodi contributed to this report.