WASHINGTON (AP) — November's presidential election offers Americans one of the starkest choices in years. On this, at least, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney can agree.
Obama says voters will choose between "two fundamentally different visions of where we take America." To which his Republican rival counters: "If you want to know where his vision leads, open your eyes...It leads to lost jobs, lost homes, lost dreams."
Romney promises a countervision of "growth and jobs and economic vitality."
There are no shades of gray. Beyond the usual election-year distortions and exaggerations, a yawning issues gulf separates the two candidates.
Romney sharpened the distinctions by selecting Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, a choice that cheered the GOP's conservative base.
The differences will be on display over the next two weeks as Romney, and then Obama, host their national party conventions.
The world views of the two tickets seem like mirror-images.
Obama sees government as the catalyst for economic growth, a safety net for the neediest, a protector against free-market excesses and a safeguard for the environment. That philosophy led to his stimulus and auto-bailout programs and his support for legislation tightening federal financial regulation. In the future, he wants more government spending on education, on highways and bridges and in promoting renewable energy.
In other words, Obama wants a government that is active on behalf of its citizens while Romney and Ryan believe it should get out of the way.
Borrowing a page from Ronald Reagan, Romney brands government the problem — not part of the solution. He says overreaching government stifles growth, innovation and productivity. He would slash individual and corporate taxes, lighten federal regulations and trim budget deficits mostly through deep spending cuts.
Their positions hew closely to present day Democratic and Republican hyperpartisan orthodoxy.
"The old rule-of-thumb was that to win the nomination you first win your base and then move to the middle. Both Obama and Romney are being forced to play it closer to their bases than in the past," said presidential scholar Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution think tank. By now, both candidates should have begun a migration to the center to attract crucial independent voters. "But that's not happening," Hess said.
And with a fifty-fifty polarized nation and a shrinking number of undecided voters, energizing their respective bases is of critical importance.
The candidates harbor many 180-degree differences:
— Romney opposes tax increases of any kind, although he says he would close some unspecified loopholes. He'd extend all Bush-era tax cuts and lower corporate and individual rates. Obama would raise taxes on households earning more than $250,000 a year and further raise taxes on those making more than $1 million.
— Obama supports abortion choice and gay marriage. "Mine will be a pro-life presidency," says the anti-abortion rights Romney, who also opposes gay marriage.
— Obama favors easing immigration restrictions and won't deport illegal immigrants brought here as children. Romney takes a tough stance against undocumented workers, even suggesting "self-deportation." However, he won't say whether he'd rescind Obama's decision on illegal immigrants who came as children.
— Romney would give oil and coal production more emphasis and approve the Keystone XL pipeline to bring oil from Canada to U.S. Gulf Coast ports. Obama says that, for now, the nation should tap "all of the above" energy sources while moving toward renewable and other "green" energy. He would strengthen regulation of global-warming-producing greenhouse gases and has so far blocked the Keystone pipeline. Romney says, "We don't know what is causing climate change."
— Obama has welcomed easy-money policies of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to stimulate lending and protect the nation's banking system. Romney says he'd ditch Bernanke when his term expires in 2014.
— Romney charges Obama isn't tough enough on China, too accommodating to Iran and an unreliable ally of Israel. He'd review steps Obama took on Israel and "do the opposite."
— Obama is forging ahead to implement his health care law now that the Supreme Court has upheld it. Romney would begin steps to repeal it on "Day One," even though it's modeled on the Massachusetts plan he championed as governor.
While the rivals point fingers at one another over who's out of touch with ordinary Americans, both campaigns agree the economy is the top issue.
Obama lately has sought to focus attention on tax inequity, Romney points to lame job growth on the president's watch.
Romney governed Massachusetts as a political moderate and reached across the aisle to majority-party Democrats. Some analysts suggest he may again govern from the middle if elected.
But so far Romney hasn't strayed much from conservative dogma, while Obama has abandoned serious efforts to cut deals with Republicans.
If Romney really is a moderate at heart, "he hasn't made it any easier for himself in the campaign so far," said William Galston, a top domestic policy adviser to then-President Bill Clinton.
GOP consultant Rich Galen suggests the sharp Obama-Romney divide reflects divisions across America but more immediately echoes the harsh, unforgiving partisan rhetoric in Congress.
"It's becoming much more like the British system where, no matter what the government does, the opposition hates it. It's never a good idea," Galen said. "I'm not sure it's the best possible course for our republic."
Romney survived a brutal GOP primary season only by repeatedly fending off charges by rivals from his own party that he was too moderate. And Obama moved closer to his Democratic base as the recovery slowed and as Republicans made his defeat a top priority.
Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said Romney may have been permanently altered by the rings of fire he had to jump through to prove he was conservative enough to carry the GOP banner.
"If you take only the public statements and the promises that have been made, the choice is a stark one," Ornstein said, "starker than we've seen before."
Follow Tom Raum on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tomraum.