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Bush or Kerry? The choice is stark - and personal
Updated: 2004-11-02 08:56

Not in recent memory has an election motivated voters as this one has, nor has the impact seemed so great. A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll finds a stunning 90% saying the stakes are higher this year than in past elections. Turnout is expected to near the record 65.4% set in the Richard Nixon-John Kennedy contest 44 years ago.

And if voters are divided, they certainly are not in doubt. All but 2% say they have made up their minds - emphatically. US President Bush and Sen. John Kerry each score record-high "strength-of-support" ratings. Each also is rated "highly unfavorable" by more voters than any major-party candidate since 1964 GOP nominee Barry Goldwater - the byproduct of a caustic campaign, a divisive war and a presidency that voters love or loathe.

You will not, though, find an endorsement of either candidate in this space. In the six presidential elections during USA TODAY's existence, we've never seen that as our role. We comment daily on the issues, often pointedly criticizing one candidate or the other. We hope our opinions - and the opposing views presented with them - help inform people's thinking and provoke discussion. But we do not think there is one right candidate for all of our readers.

The choice is too personal.

We favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, for instance, but we would not presume to suggest that any reader should exercise a vote that conflicts with his or her religious beliefs. Nor would we tell the mother of a soldier in Iraq that she should not vote to bring her son home, even though we think the mission in Iraq must be seen through.

One size does not fit all.

In fact, one size also does not fit the group that would make the endorsement, the newspaper's editorial board, which forms and writes the opinions in this space. Its members are picked to reflect the nation, and today they reflect the nation's divisions.

But all agree on this: The choice to be made Tuesday stands to be every bit as important as the polls suggest it is. Given the gravity of the issues and the differences between the candidates, it is perhaps historic.

In some ways, those differences may seem small. On Iraq, for instance, both candidates favor continuing a U.S. presence indefinitely. On education, both say they'd use Bush's No Child Left Behind Act to improve schools. They're both free traders, they both favor the death penalty, and neither, in our view, has a credible plan for closing the gaping federal budget deficit.

But the truth of the choice lies less in those particulars than in their records and in the kind of men they are.

They are, first and foremost, polar opposites as leaders.

Bush acts on instinct, core beliefs and the counsel of his most trusted advisers. That served the nation well in the wake of 9/11 as the president moved sure-handedly to heal the country's wounds and pursue al-Qaeda. But the same instinct backfired badly in the decision to invade Iraq, made in a needless rush for reasons that proved to be false, with potentially devastating consequences.

Kerry's more intellectual approach would likely have led to different results in each case. His depth of knowledge, caution and inclination to bring allies along very might well have prompted him to steer away from invading Iraq. But whether he'd have acted as decisively as Bush did after 9/11 is open to doubt. His Senate record lacks evidence of conviction.

Those differences are a microcosm of their international outlooks more broadly. Kerry emphasizes working with allies; Bush, more than any recent president, has taken an independent path over allied objections.

Domestically, the two reflect their parties' long-standing differences. This is not an election in which major issues are so scarce that minor ones will decide the winner. On some days, a centrist voter would need high-powered binoculars to spot the two candidates at the two ends of the political spectrum.

Throughout his presidency, Bush has rallied supporters by emphasizing tax cuts, despite a disproportionate benefit for the well-off; translated his religious values into public policies; and favored private-sector solutions to problems ranging from health care to the environment.

Kerry believes most people are alienated by those polices. He has said he'd repeal Bush's tax cuts for upper-bracket wage earners, keep his religious beliefs separate from policy, and greatly increase the government's role in the financing and management of health care.

Those differences, among many others, are not easily compromised. But for the few who think them trivial, there is independent Ralph Nader and third-party candidates such as Libertarian Michael Badnarik and Green Party nominee David Cobb.

The contrasts are so sharp and the stakes so high, the wonder is that 40% of people who registered won't vote. There is a choice to be made, and the result will matter deeply and personally to nearly everyone.

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