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Analysis: The campaign ahead — sharpest choice since the 1960s

By David Lightman, McClatchy Newspapers –

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The 2012 presidential election’s battle lines are now sharper and the choices more vivid than at any time since at least the mid-1960s.

Voters had distinct choices in that era’s elections. They debated civil rights, the creation of Medicare, the Vietnam War, and law and order.

This year’s political options are as diverse. Voters will not only select Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, they’ll also send a message about the role of government that could reverberate and reshape how people pay taxes, get help when times are tough and manage their health care.

To Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, government’s mission is to promote opportunity with lower taxes, less regulation, more private involvement in health care and a climate where business can thrive and hire. Obama views Washington as a source of service and support for those who need better education, training and maybe financial help to become productive members of society.

The back-to-back political conventions that ended Thursday reintroduced Obama and Romney as not just the standard-bearers of their parties, but as champions for polarized ideologies.

Perhaps just as important to this year’s political storyline, the two weeks of gavel-to-gavel politics gave voters a close look at the candidates’ contrasting styles. Spouses, surrogates and supporters tried to portray them as caring, thoughtful leaders with deep political souls, but also soft edges. Personality will matter, particularly in a race that’s been a virtual tie for weeks.

“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 regarded as the skilled manager who absorbs data and then devises ways to make systems work. Obama is the unflappable thinker who believes government has a vital role in pulling besieged Americans out of their economic ditch.

The candidates’ pitches during these conventions were a preview of the campaign rhetoric in the weeks ahead. The concepts they want chiseled into American psyches were often plainspoken bromides for complex problems.

The conventions had two major goals: energize the party’s most ardent supporters and make others like and trust the candidate.

Romney’s forces maintain they expected little gain in the polls. Top strategist Stuart Stevens said that because the campaigns had been going full blast all summer, the public had little to learn about the candidates’ positions on issues.

A key convention goal was to humanize Romney’s wooden, out-of-touch, rich-guy image. The convention featured wife Ann talking about “this boy I met at a high school dance,” and a video about her husband’s history of helping others.

Obama had a different mission: Show that his policies were working, if slowly, and that he’s still the “hope and change” president. His soft side came from wife Michelle, who recalled how Barack Obama picked her up for dates in a rusted car where “I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger-side door.”

Polls suggested Obama kept his edge in the likability sweepstakes. A bigger unknown remains how the appeals to the bases will play. Both parties adopted unusually rigid ideological platforms, Democrats in an effort to appeal to liberals, Republicans to conservatives.

In such fierce, unpredictable political combat, such non-economic issues could motivate just enough voters to tip the race. The campaign will be fought largely in about a dozen states that appear too close to call.

The next big test comes in about a month, when the first Obama-Romney debate is scheduled. Ultimately, the election is about the economy, and all about who can best do the job to revive it.

“Strip away all the varnish and goodwill from the (convention) speakers,” said Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, “and you’re going to get back to what Americans really care about.”

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