It's the mantra we will hear endlessly in the coming weeks: Americans face a "stark choice" come November. It is a choice, as President Barack Obama has said repeatedly, "between two fundamentally different visions" for our country. Or as newly anointed Republican nominee Mitt Romney has said from the stump, "President Obama's vision is very different -- and deeply flawed."
It may all sound like the kind of rhetoric we hear every four years. But this year, analysts, polls and even the politicians themselves keep telling us: The "visions" really are more acutely divergent because our differences as Americans are, too.
So how do these opposing world views look through the eyes of the voters who will choose?
Look no further than a neighborhood Chick-fil-A restaurant to see how our contrary notions about just one topic -- gay marriage -- played out this summer. Perhaps you were one who stood in line to buy a sandwich in support of the chain whose president spoke out against same-sex marriage. Or, rather, you may have reposted a picture that made the rounds on Facebook comparing those protests to others, long ago, against school integration and "race mixing" with a tag line that jeered, "Imagine how stupid you are going to look in 40 years."
On this and so many other issues this election year, it seems harder to find that middle-ground gray when our debates seem so very black or white.
It's true that partisan polarization on basic policy questions is at its highest point in 25 years, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Put simply, where once Americans who call themselves "Republican" or "Democrat" saw more eye-to-eye on issues such as the environment or government's role in helping the poor, their viewpoints are far more at odds. The largest divide now centers on the scope and role of government.
That makes for "a world of difference" between the parties, the candidates and their ideas, says political scientist William Galston, a Brookings Institution fellow studying the implications of this polarization. "It's not just in the numbers" of where each side would spend, cut or tax. "It's also in the underlying theories of how the world works and what would cure the problems that ail us," he says. "If the voters don't see that now, I think by the end of this election they will."
Many do see it. And for them these two visions aren't merely about whether the health care law should stay or go, or whether abortion should remain legal or not, or whether taxes should be reduced for all or raised for the richest. It's about the underlying philosophies upon which they've built their own lives and that they, therefore, want to see reflected in their government and, yes, in their president.
Rita Ferrandino of Sarasota, Fla., knows clearly the kind of America she wants to live in: A nation where everyone gets a place at the table and a chance to succeed, regardless of race, creed or how much money is in your wallet. She is a first-generation American born to Italian immigrants -- her father was a barber, her mother a bookkeeper -- and she recalls fondly growing up in a central Pennsylvania immigrant town where everyone took care of each other.
If her parents couldn't afford to buy her a new dress, a neighbor would be ready with a hand-me-down. The Catholic church she grew up in taught her about family values but also about social justice -- "helping your brother," she remembers.
Ferrandino made her way through college on a scholarship and, now in her 40s, is the principal of a private equity investment firm as well as a single mother and chair of her county Democratic Party. In short, she says: "I understand my fiscal responsibility. I also more fundamentally understand my social responsibility."
She is an Obama supporter who firmly believes that the two visions offered by the candidates are just as stark as they say they are.
For her it comes down to this: "It's about: Together, we can create more."
In Thornton, Colo., Navy veteran Tony Hake sees things far differently. "Americans," he says, "are the type of people who can do well on our own. We don't always need people helping us. You want to help us? Get out of our way."
Hake, 43, is a self-described staunch conservative who knows that many of his beliefs flow from those of his father, also a military veteran and an ex-Denver police officer.
But when Hake rails about one of his biggest issues this election year -- government's role in our lives -- there is another reason for it: Two decades ago, when he applied to become a Denver cop like his dad, he was turned down. He says the letter cited "federally mandated hiring requirements."
"Basically affirmative action," says Hake, who instead spent six years in the Navy and now works in information technology for a construction company. "I won't lie. I was utterly devastated. ... That's what it boils down to. There is a time and a place for government intervention, and then there's a time not to intervene. There was a time when affirmative action was certainly needed, just like there was a time when unions served a purpose. I would like to think that in both those cases, we have moved past that."
Instead, he believes the federal government has only grown more interventionist. He fears the United States becoming a place "where people live on the dole from cradle to death."
His vision of America falls very much in line with that of Romney and running mate Paul Ryan: Everyone deserves equal opportunities but shouldn't be guaranteed equal outcomes.
This "it takes a village" vs. "make your own destiny" theme was just one resonating deeply among some of the voters in key swing states that may decide the election. And make no mistake: For many, these philosophical convictions mean far more to their decision-making process than any economic plan or budget.
In Columbus, Ohio, Kathy Tarrier would be much more conflicted about voting Democratic over Republican if fiscal issues alone guided her. Like many, she'd like to see a reduction in congressional earmarks and spending cuts for certain social programs.
But Tarrier is gay and a mother of two children with her partner of 25 years, and the positions of the two parties on the issue closest to her heart couldn't be more disparate.
The platform GOP convention-goers adopted last week backs a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman, a position Romney supports. The Democratic platform that will be presented at the convention this week states the opposite. It endorses same-sex marriage, as Obama did earlier this year, and also calls for the repeal of a federal law that denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples.
"It doesn't feel good to be a second-class citizen," says Tarrier, 52, a systems administrator at the Franklin County public defender's office. "I've had people spit at me, and I've heard the slurs. Yeah, I want changes. I want the same civil rights as everybody else, as an individual and as a couple."
Tarrier's decision to vote for Obama rests not only in the parties' specific policy positions but in the principles that they represent. For her, it means the difference between a country that is inclusive or exclusive, one that can evolve and embrace change or one that regresses to something that feels more comfortable somehow.
The vision guiding her this election year: "I don't want to see what I consider the nation going backward."
Still others are very much looking to the past as they assess the election and their own desires for which direction the country heads.
Patricia Knight, 65, wants to go back to the ideals she was raised with as a girl growing up in the 1950s on Oyster Bay in Long Island, N.Y. To her that means showing respect: for one's elders, for oneself, for the Constitution and for life by once again outlawing abortion. "America was a better America before," says the retired kitchen designer who leads her local Republican women's club in Virginia Beach, Va.
Knight says she isn't afraid of change -- for example, she doesn't oppose the morning-after pill in cases of rape and incest. But, for her, Obama's vision is one that brings too much change too fast.
For Lee Levin, co-founder of the Broward Tea Party in south Florida, looking back means getting back to the constitutional principles upon which the nation was founded: individual liberty and freedom from too much government control.
Levin doesn't blame Obama alone for a national debt now approaching $16 trillion. It's the reason this libertarian-leaning Republican didn't vote for George W. Bush in 2004, and the same reason he isn't 100 percent sure Romney is the guy who might somehow turn things around.
"It's taken 100 years to get to the point where we're at right now," says Levin, 44, a drummer who runs a recording studio out of his home in Pembroke Pines. "There's plenty of blame to go around. My biggest concern is that if Obama wins we may not be able to recover back to the way I think it should be."
He looks around at the foreclosures in his neighborhood, thinks of the many federal programs implemented to help those homeowners and can't help but feel that the government came to the rescue of those who bit off more than they could chew. He cringes when his 10-year-old son brings home an award simply for "participating" at school.
"We've really become an entitlement society," he says. "People think they deserve something just because they exist. ... It doesn't mean the quote unquote `Republicans' are the answer. The answer is ourselves. To me, that's the bottom line."
Last week, Romney got his chance to present America with his plan for the future as Republicans gathered for their national convention. "The president has disappointed America because he hasn't led America in the right direction," he said in his acceptance speech, calling for a "better future" but offering few specifics.
This week, at the Democratic convention, it's Obama's turn. And then, the fall campaign begins in earnest.
Through it all, Americans will be watching -- the few who remain undecided but also the many who already know which way they lean -- to find out which man might best mirror their own very distinct visions for America and, more so, can bring them to fruition.
Pauline Arrillaga, a Phoenix-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.