The 2012 battle lines are sharper and the choices more vivid than at any presidential election since at least the mid-1960s. In that era, voters had distinct choices: They deliberated over civil rights, the creation of Medicare, the Vietnam War, law and order.
This year's political options are as diverse. Voters not only will select Mitt Romney or Barack Obama but also will send a message about the role of government that could reshape how people pay taxes, get help when times are tough and take care of their health.
To Romney, the Republican nominee, government's mission is to promote opportunity with lower taxes, less regulation, more private involvement in health care and a climate in which business can thrive and hire.
To incumbent Obama, Washington is a source of service and support for those who need better education, training and possibly financial help to become productive members of society.
The back-to-back political conventions that ended last week reintroduced Romney and Obama as not just the standard-bearers of their parties but as champions for two poles-apart ideologies.
Perhaps just as important, the conventions gave voters a close look at the two candidates' contrasting styles. Spouses, surrogates and supporters tried to portray them as caring, thoughtful leaders with deep political souls and human foibles.
Personality will matter in such a close race, because “people make a very personal choice,” said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa. “They don't take out a yellow legal pad and make a list of positions. They ask who will be on their side.”
Romney heads into the fall campaign depicted as the skilled manager who absorbs data, then devises ways to make systems work. Obama is portrayed as the unflappable thinker who believes government has a vital role in pulling besieged Americans out of their economic ditch.
The candidates' convention pitches previewed the campaign rhetoric voters will be hearing again and again in the weeks until Nov. 6.
Romney urged Americans to see Obama as a noble disappointment, a “green” politician who was never equipped to deal with the worst economic crisis in 80 years. Romney's most memorable line: “Now is the moment when we can stand up and say ‘I'm an American. I make my destiny. And we deserve better. My children deserve better. My family deserves better. My country deserves better.'”
Obama departed from his hope-and-change mantra of 2008, but not much: “You will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation. Over the next few years, big decisions will be made in Washington, on jobs and the economy; taxes and deficits; energy and education; war and peace — decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and our children's lives for decades to come.”
Both parties also adopted unusually ideological platforms at their conventions, though their effects are uncertain. Platforms in recent decades have been seen as musty paperwork exercises with little influence, but the sharpness of this race could alter that.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed the idea that voters could see the platforms as too extreme.
“Have you ever met anybody who read the party platform? I've not,” Boehner said.
Yet each side has gleefully torn into the other as too extreme.
“Medicare is on the ballot,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, referring to the GOP plan, included in the platform, to overhaul Medicare. “Democrats will preserve and strengthen Medicare. Republicans will end the Medicare guarantee. It's just plain wrong.”
For their part, Republicans reminded voters that the Democratic platform supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Obama “believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
In fierce, unpredictable political combat, fought largely in about a dozen states too close to call, such non-economic issues could motivate just enough voters to tip the race. To rephrase a campaign cliché, it might not be just the economy, stupid.
The key tossups are in states big and small. New Hampshire, Nevada and Iowa offer a total of just 16 electoral votes — 270 are needed to elect — but in a close race, any of the three could matter. The bigger prizes include Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, Virginia and North Carolina.
The next big nationwide test comes Oct. 3 at the University of Denver, when the first Obama-Romney debate is held, on the topic of domestic policy.