Clearest choice of our time

The dueling political conventions presented starkly different portraits on how to go about fixing the problems facing America.

Republicans in Tampa pounded on President Obama???s ???you-didn???t-build-that??? statement and paid homage to the nation???s entrepreneurial spirit, making the case that the economy, if left unshackled by taxes and regulation, can get back on course.

Democrats countered by stressing the good that government can do and tried to make a moral argument about giving a helping hand to the needy through government action.

While disavowed by the Democratic National Committee, the host committee for the city of Charlotte produced a video shown at the convention that seemed to perfectly resonate with the Democratic theme. ???The government is the only thing we all belong to,??? it said.

As Nancy Pelosi said when it was her turn on the podium, ???this election is the clearest choice of our time.???

Rare is the election where the battle is fought on ground so grand and so clear. This is an election that will be chiefly about the role and scope of government.

Democrats trotted out Harvard Law School Professor and U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren with the message that the ???system is rigged,??? and former President Bill Clinton to give authority to his party???s chief argument for Obama: He inherited a mess from George W. Bush. No president, Clinton told the delegates, could have fixed the economy in four years.

Clinton laid down a marker that may end up backfiring against his party. Decrying Republican budget deficits immediately prior to and following his administration, Clinton extolled ???arithmetic??? as the way he was able to gain budget surpluses while president. That same ???arithmetic??? is a disadvantage to the current president, who is running trillion-dollar deficits.

The arithmetic of the budget gives Republicans their own moral imperative: that it is reprehensible to saddle future generations with a mountain of debt. Paul Ryan???s selection as Mitt Romney???s running mate signaled that Republicans would run a campaign on the big issues facing the nation and have a serious discussion about entitlement reform.

Two different tones

Besides the differing governing philosophies, there was a sharp contrast in tone between the two conventions. Republicans tried keeping a focus on the economic issues facing the country while Democrats made more emotional appeals.

Democrats were definitely angrier at their convention than the Republicans, with Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker literally shouting from the podium. That Booker???s biggest applause line came when he called for taxes on the wealthy speaks volumes about the Democrats??? reliance on class warfare as a winning strategy.

Democrats also had an unforced error at the convention stemming from its initial version of the party???s platform. Removing the last remaining reference to God that was in the 2008 platform, as well as deleting the endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel???s capital, created an unnecessary distraction.

The flap ended with an embarrassing voice vote on the floor that seemed to fall short of the two-thirds needed to change the platform back, but was nevertheless ratified by the party leaders???whose decision was booed by some delegates.

Republicans have good reasons to feel good about their convention despite the ongoing debate over Clint Eastwood???s performance. Ann Romney was certainly a hit and helped to humanize her husband with stories about their family life. Ryan electrified the crowd as he effectively introduced himself to the national electorate as someone with intelligent solutions to big problems.

An enduring image from the Republican convention was the lineup of fresh faces on the podium.

From South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, America was introduced to a new generation of conservative leaders that were more diverse and whose life stories often embodied the American dream.

Such a contrast to the Democrat???s idea of diversity: a parade of big city mayors extolling the role of big government.

What did undecided voters think?

Political conventions usually have twin goals???to rev up the party faithful while also appealing to the undecided voter. Both parties are happy with how their conventions played to their base; the question remains how they played to the sliver of undecided voters in swing states.

Obama has been suffering from a serious enthusiasm gap in this campaign when compared to his ???hope and change??? magic of 2008. Four years ago, Obama gave his acceptance speech in a massive stadium with Styrofoam Greek columns. His acceptance speech this year was moved from a football stadium back to the convention hall, with worries about weather and attendance.

Many of his most fervent supporters are among those most hurt by the slumbering economy. While the convention may have helped Obama give inspiration to the party faithful, it was not a game-changer in reaching voters disillusioned after four years.

The Democrats really did not make a strong case to those undecideds as to why Obama deserves another four years.

They are left with running a campaign based on negative, and increasingly desperate, attacks. Calling Romney a felon, blaming him for a cancer death, exaggerating his business record???all risk turning off the very voters they need.

We doubt the attacks will be counterbalanced by Bill Clinton???s attempts to remind everyone of how he governed from the middle (or, more precisely, in a Reaganesque fashion, post-1994) and imply that President Obama might do the same in his second term. One only has to read the Democratic platform to see there is little that could be called middle ground.

As long as Republicans can keep their campaign on the issues???particularly jobs, the economy, Medicare and debt???it plays to their advantage.

Those are issues that resonate with independents, who are also more likely to be turned off by the Obama team???s negative campaigning, and the big government solutions they recommend.