We are an anxious America hungry for change. Two men with captivating life stories promise to bring it. Yet, each would take the country down a very different path.
After 22 long months, most everyone could use a refresher on how we got here - even Barack Obama and John McCain.
"There are babies who've been born and are now walking and talking since we started this campaign," Obama laments nearly each day. And, McCain agrees: "It has been a long pull. All of us wish it would be shorter."
Some voters probably feel the same way. Certainly, the folks in the thick of the campaign do. Still, for many people who haven't been watching closely, the campaign starts now.
_This is an election at a pivotal time, a tenuous period in the United States and across the world.
Here, people struggle to fill their cars with gas, their tables with food, their children with knowledge. They worry about job layoffs, home foreclosures and shrinking pensions - and they have reason to, given cheaper overseas labor, a credit crisis and havoc on Wall Street. Wildfires scorch the West, floods pound the Heartland and tropical storms slam the Gulf Coast. The scars of Hurricane Katrina linger. So do those of Sept. 11.
Elsewhere, the United States leads wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's chaos in Pakistan. Russian troops occupy tiny Georgia. Iran test-fires missiles, while North Korea grudgingly begins nuclear disarmament. Al-Qaida and the Taliban plot in the shadows. Genocide consumes Darfur. Poverty and disease blanket Africa. Israelis and Palestinians struggle still. China's influence grows, as does that of the rest of Asia. The U.S. dollar trades near record lows.
Everywhere, a changing climate threatens irreparable harm to the environment, to animal species, frankly, to the world as we know it. Cures for cancer and other deadly diseases remain elusive.
And Americans search for a leader to fix the ills, fretting: It's got to get better.
_This is a campaign of candidates with remarkable biographies, men who have achieved remarkable feats.
McCain, the descendant of admirals and blessed with a privileged upbringing, was a Navy pilot when shot down over Vietnam. He was held prisoner for 5 1/2 years, beaten, tortured and kept in solitary confinement. He returned home and ran for the House several years later; a Senate promotion later followed.
He has represented Arizona in Congress for 26 years, at times bucking his own party, working across party lines and putting his thumbprint on military policy. A failed White House bid against George W. Bush in 2000 put this man - with his white hair, rapid-fire pace and quick wit - on the national political scene. Nearing age 72, he would be the oldest first-term elected president.
Obama, 47, is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. He grew up modestly, his youth spent in Hawaii and Indonesia. He turned to politics - and the Illinois Legislature - after stints as a community organizer, a civil rights attorney and a constitutional law lecturer.
Tall, trim and easygoing, Obama rocketed onto the national stage as a U.S. Senate candidate who gave a stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Four years later, his shockingly swift rise from freshman senator to likely Democratic nominee has mesmerized the world. He would be the country's first black president.
_This is a race of huge contrasts with enormous implications for the way ahead.
Both McCain and Obama are senators, fathers and husbands. Both talk of faith, family and freedom, patriotism, purpose and pride.
The similarities stop there.
McCain is the elder, Obama the youth. McCain is white, Obama black. McCain is a political veteran, Obama still a virtual rookie.
Substantively, it's difficult to find issues on which they agree.
McCain has largely a conservative Senate voting record, while Obama's is mostly liberal - and their proposals for the future essentially adhere to those ideologies.
On war and peace, McCain is a hawk, Obama a dove. The Republican supported the decision to wage war with Iraq and rejects a timetable for a U.S. troop drawdown; the Democrat opposed the war from the start and wants to bring home combat troops within 16 months.
On economics, McCain is a free-market advocate, Obama a "fair-market" proponent. The Republican supports a series of tax breaks for corporations to spur competition, while the Democrat calls for taxing the rich more to even out the nation's wealth disparity.
On cultural issues, McCain opposes abortion rights, while Obama supports them.
They differ, too, on energy, education, health care, global warming, gun control, the death penalty, housing relief and a host of other topics, underscoring just how vastly different the country might be under one man or the other.
And just how important this election is.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Liz Sidoti is covering her second presidential campaign.