Rarely has an election been so anticipated. Rarely has a campaign gone on for so long and offered so many plot twists. And never in a generation have Americans and their talking heads expressed such certainty, such passion that the next president can change the national game so fundamentally and so entirely.
After months of the momentous and too much of the trivial, a day has arrived that will be extraordinary no matter what the political outcome. On Tuesday, as they select their next leader, this is what the deeply divided citizens of the American republic face:
-an economy that is sagging, perhaps even in free fall, and is setting off a chain reaction of fiscal ugliness around the globalized world even as it devours jobs and capital at home.
-a 5 1/2-year war in Iraq that has killed nearly 4,200 Americans and divided the two candidates, one of them a war hero, about how and when it should end.
-in a country that once took up arms against itself over slavery, an opportunity to install the first black president - a prospect that Democrats chose over nominating the first woman, and one that has reduced many Americans to tears of anticipation and brought others to new heights of suspicion.
-post-9/11 trepidations about terrorism at home and America's image in the world: What should its global role be - collaborative or imperious?
-an ocean of distaste, much of it bipartisan, at how the George W. Bush presidency has played out and what it has done to the country and the world.
All this and two candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, who offer strikingly different portraits of what America means, how it should act and how to fix what ails it.
On Election Day 2008, fellow Americans, the state of the union is ... highly confusing.
"Something has to change," says Aaron Crider, 35, a restaurant worker in Columbus, Ohio, in one of the race's most hotly contested states. "Something's gotta give."
Confidence, long a defining force and even a leading export in America, is flagging, and so is its capitalist counterpart, consumer confidence. The news is brimming with tips on how to spend less, stretch resources, keep your job. People are grumpy. When probed about their grumpiness, they retort with variations of the same answer: How, they grump, could you NOT be grumpy?
"We're kind of at a standstill," says Caitin Patch, a hairdresser in Denver.
And so the candidates have spent uncounted hours and dollars on what President Bush's father once disparagingly called "the vision thing."
Americans have always loved to tell stories about their society, the pieces of a grand narrative that has helped shape the identity of a nation founded upon ideas. So the road to the ballot box - the ballot touch screen, at least - has been dotted with cultural signposts used by the candidates to show us back to ourselves in the ways that flatter their candidacies. No matter if the stories are real, as long as they feel authentic.
McCain and Sarah Palin painted themselves as mavericks and protectors of the modern version of Norman Rockwell. In their small-town "real America," people like Joe the Plumber - small businesses rather than corporations - form the backbone of a new kind of pastoral society that is, if not agrarian, at least deeply suspicious of the smelly doings of Washington insiderism. And they have invoked, in ways subtle and sledgehammer-like, the role of religion in guiding, and dictating, the conscience of the nation.
Obama and Joe Biden built a grand vision around reclaiming the gentler side of American exceptionalism - sometimes so grand that it started to sound grandiose, even messianic. Far more overtly than McCain-Palin, they blamed the country's wrong direction on Bush administration policies and linked McCain, fairly or not, to a president whose popularity has been tanking for years.
Both camps have tapped this discontent with variations on a theme: change, particularly the economic kind. The shining city on the hill, they say, is desperately seeking urban renewal. Disgruntled Americans seem to agree. In a country accustomed to low voter turnout, apathy has not been a problem this year.
"It is the most uniformly intense election I have ever, ever been a part of," Biden told a crowd Monday even as McCain, the underdog in the polls for weeks, summoned his faithful for a last-minute surge of grass-roots intensity. "Volunteer," McCain said. "Knock on doors. Get your neighbors to the polls. I need your vote."
We've heard charges of socialism and guilt by association, accusations of incompetence and elitism and, that old chestnut, lying. We've been told what we need, what we should want, why we're smart and why the other guys are deluded and even unpatriotic. We've been awash in cliches and even, occasionally, the fresh breeze of new ideas. Through it all, the candidates and their constituents-in-waiting have wrestled to define the 21st-century American experience.
"We are in a country in transition, trying to struggle with learning how to be a global partner as a superpower," says Ralph Cohen, 52, a registered independent in West Hartford, Conn. "The election is really a referendum on really how we want to connect to the rest of the world."
Peter Keller, a psychologist at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, studies how to build ethical cultures. He cites sinking confidence in institutions as a reason that strong leadership is particularly critical for Americans right now. "If we live in a fear-centered environment," Keller says, "we start to focus on individual needs rather than needs that address the larger good."
This is one of those elections that is about more than who becomes president, like the election that gave us Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, or Ronald Reagan in 1980. It is about what we want our government to be - which, in a democracy, is always a reflection of who we want to be.
"As the time for choosing draws near, really, the choice could not be clearer," Palin said Monday in Lakewood, Ohio. Not even her political nemesis, Barack Obama, would say otherwise.