WASHINGTON (AP) - It's a choice sure to touch the lives of all 315 million Americans, some in profound ways _ their livelihoods, their health, their sense of freedom or confidence in the future, maybe even whether they go to war or live in peace.
On Tuesday, voters will pick a man, a philosophy and a portfolio of plans to shape the United States and influence the world for four years.
In days to follow, the winner will be tested by events _ perhaps momentous ones _ that no one can foresee. Voters can only go by what they know now: what Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama say they'll do for the country, and what's been revealed about each man along the way.
After six days of political conventions, six hours of debates and a months-long barrage of 30-second TV spots, plenty of people have heard enough. All that talk, talk, talk makes even mammoth issues _ 7.9 percent unemployment, Obamacare, income tax rates, Social Security _ sound like abstractions. Yet each affects real people, every day.
The voters' decision is concrete and powerful and, once made, we'll all live with it.
Some ways to look at that choice:
_ Four years after the U.S. financial system nearly imploded, we're still figuring out how to heal the economy and help 12 million people find work. On one side is Obama's plan to tax the wealthy more, end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, and spend more on job training, education, infrastructure and new energy sources. On the other side are Romney's ideas for getting the government out of the way of growth by streamlining the tax code, lowering taxes and regulations on businesses, reducing federal deficits, and curbing environmental regulations to encourage oil and gas production.
_ At heart, it's a choice between bigger or smaller government. Are welfare and food stamps a hand-up for those in need or a handout on the road to dependency? Are Americans better served by consistent national programs or giving control to the states? Do environmental regulations and Wall Street rules protect citizens or hold back businesses from creating jobs? How much of the work of government should be turned over to private enterprise?
_ Obamacare is on the line. Keeping the president's program in place means expanding coverage for the low-income and the uninsured and keeping costs down for patients with pre-existing conditions. Romney would repeal Obama's health care law to get rid of its new costs and taxes and the mandate that almost everyone have health coverage. He doesn't say what he'd do instead.
_ Voters are choosing what to do about the runaway national debt, which already tops $16 trillion. Obama wants to slow spending gradually to avoid sending the economy back into recession, and raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Romney wants quick, more dramatic spending cuts across government, exempting the military.
_ It's a judgment about what the world needs next from the leader of the United States as America eases out of the war in Afghanistan. A more aggressive stance against Iran's nuclear ambitions? A measured response to turmoil in Libya and the Middle East and civil war in Syria? Does success in ridding the world of Osama bin Laden equal strength against terrorists? Would pushing harder against China's trade policies help U.S. workers or spark a trade war?
_ And it's not just the White House. The tilt of the Supreme Court for decades to come may be at stake. Four justices are in their 70s; whoever is president will probably get to choose one or more replacements.
_ With Social Security and Medicare on shaky ground, Election Day may shape the future of American retirement. Romney wants to gradually raise the Social Security age and hold down benefits for wealthier retirees; Obama says he wants to protect Social Security but hasn't offered a plan. Obama wants to keep today's Medicare but rein in its costs; Romney proposes giving future retirees payments to help buy private insurance as an alternative to Medicare.
_ Maybe it's a matter of deciding who is best for the groups each voter identifies with most: women, Hispanics, small-business owners, union members, gun owners, middle-class families, rural residents, seniors, immigrants, Christian conservatives, gays and lesbians.
_ Or choosing which way Washington should lean on social issues like abortion, gay marriage, women in combat, and making exceptions to federal rules for religious institutions that are also employers.
_ For many voters, it's as simple as Democrat vs. Republican. But the choice is also law professor vs. venture capitalist. Illinois senator vs. Massachusetts governor. Stay the course vs. a new direction. Mr. You Didn't Build that vs. Mr. 47 percent.
Is a candidate the sum of all his policies? Would either man be able to keep his promises if stymied by recalcitrant Congress members? Maybe, in an uncertain world, character trumps everything.
The choice belongs to the voters.
Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ConnieCass
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