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.