In a normal election, if there is such a thing, it ought to be clear by the end what the race is about — whether the candidates are promising continuity or change, bright contrasts or fine distinctions; whether it is about character or competence; whether the results will actually matter in most people's lives or just change the background music on the evening news while they go about multitasking and instant messaging and sorting the laundry and paying the bills. But this election, this confoundingly close race, just dares wavering voters to make a decision and stick with it. It's even hard to choose whom to blame for its being so hard to choose. Could they be more alike, the two political princes, Texas and Tennessee, Harvard and Yale, the compassionate conservative against the pragmatic idealist? Could they be more different, one so unpolished it's hard to imagine, the other so shiny it hurts to look. Vice President Al Gore runs as a populist who doesn't talk much about the poor; George W. Bush, backed by more G.O.P. fat cats than any other Republican in memory, delivers the best New Democrat speech ever given in prime time, says a former Clinton adviser. Gore is famous for his Halloween parties, has always appeared in costume. And so it has been in this race — a cannibal in one debate, a Quaker in the next — and so voters say they don't quite know what to believe about him. He says he wants small, smarter government, but he talks about programs and legislation as lovingly as he does his grandson. And yet there is Bush, so consistent, so confusing, and not just because he is a speech pathologist's dream. The real confusion is in what he says, not how he says it. He's running harder against Washington than anyone in years, but he's the first Republican in a decade who doesn't want to blow up the Education Department and padlock the I.R.S. He wants to spend a trillion dollars of the surplus to let people invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, yet he promises not to cut benefits, in which case there's no spare trillion lying around to pay for it. He blasts Gore for proposing more new spending than at any time since the Great Society — except that he is doing the same. Gore says he is for revolutionary change but hasn't really proposed any; he is running with his fists balled, itching for a fight — you ain't seen nothin' yet! — even though his entire platform amounts to massaging the feet of the middle class every bit as faithfully as Bill Clinton has these past eight years. Bush's message meanwhile is so soothing — can't we all just get along? — and yet his reforms of Medicare and Social Security and education offer more change than anything either party has proposed in years — and that's just the agenda he admits to. No wonder it's confusing. Bush has built his end game around arguing that even if you agree with Gore's proposals, you can't trust him to deliver them. For Gore to prevail he will have to argue that Bush is masterminding a coverup: the centrism gets him elected, then a much more conservative agenda takes hold. He has to persuade people that Bush is a phony. And just about anyone might have an easier time doing that than Gore. Back around last Christmas, both men made a defining choice, which looked like acts of courage given the climate of the times. Bush proposed his gigantic tax cut just at the moment when polls ranked taxes way down on the list of voter concerns, well below education and debt reduction and Social Security. Gore, meanwhile, remade himself as a Rock'em Sock'em Robot just at the moment people were saying they were tired of all the fighting in Washington, moving rhetorically if not substantively to the left when every pol in the world knew that whoever controlled the center would win. It was easy to just assume that both men were aiming for their base, Bush among the supply-side faithful who viewed Steve Forbes as a visionary, Gore to the labor leaders who saw Bill Bradley as the Real Thing. And yet in each case the decision actually had roots much deeper than the demands of the moment, roots in biography and personal philosophy, which help explain why neither man discarded the position once he had safely wrapped up the nomination and needed to reach out to the independents. There is indeed a difference between these men, in where they came from and how they got here, in the instincts and instruments they bring to this race, and you can see it all in how they chose to frame this choice. Family Ties It's been fun watching two legatees, George W. Bush and Albert Gore Jr., try to out hard-hat each other. Only two true children of politics would have the need, or the skills, to distance themselves from the world in which they were raised. Both watched their fathers spend two decades in Washington at the highest levels, both attended fund raisers at their side, both worked in all kinds of political races before they'd finished college, and both could call at least two different Washington addresses home before they were ever elected to anything. They're here for a reason, and it's the same: they were born to it. Bush likes to point out that he had a life before he went into politics, ran a baseball team, lived outside the bubble, made the acquaintance of real people, though only people who have led a pretty unreal life ever refer to people as real people. His father's first race was in 1964, when George W. was already 18. Gore, on the other hand, soaked in politics from birth. His mom and dad were born poor; her bridal bouquet was an armful of weeds he scooped up on the roadside. Gore's father saw government as a means of making life fairer. Nothing cures poverty like money, Gore Sr. would say, and he believed in rearranging it as necessary. He was elected to Congress before Al was born and reached the Senate by the time Al was 4, which guaranteed that the dinner table could turn into a policy briefing to make sure young Albert fully understood all the implications of Rachel Carson's environmental crusade. His mother talked about wedging Al in if a particularly useful dinner guest was in town. Nothing is more painful for a child than losing a parent; but watching one fail is in its own way a kind of death. Both Bush and Gore watched the fathers they revered go down in flames in front of their eyes. The sons tried to save them but couldn't, so they both were left to decide whether to try to avenge them. Gore's father lost in part because his principled stands on Vietnam and Civil Rights were out of step with those of his constituents; Bush Sr. lost after voters read his lips and still got new taxes. Neither son was going to follow in those footsteps. Tax Cuts for Everyone When bush started putting the puzzle together, the big fat piece in the middle of his candidacy was always going to be a tax cut. The party faithful would expect it; the threat from Forbes, with his $40 million war chest and his 17% flat tax, demanded it. But Bush also knew that the polls showed most people did not feel overtaxed; that Republicans in Congress were being filleted for their attempts at an $800 billion tax-cut plan. They traveled the country to drum up support in August 1999 and didn't come across any. But Bush was confident he could navigate the tax-cut terrain. After his first successful legislative session as Texas Governor, when he and the Democrats in the legislature had cut deals on welfare and juvenile-justice reform, Bush proposed a total overhaul of the unfair property-tax system. His plan was widely viewed as a make-or-break gambit. He absolutely cannot politically afford for it to fail, wrote the Houston Chronicle at the time, if he had any hopes of higher office. His plan would have slashed property taxes as much as 40%, but made up the lost revenue partly with a new business tax, and by slapping sales tax on everything from car washes to tanning salons to dating services. He worked hard with the legislature to muscle his plan — or some version of it — through, but the business lobby revolted, and in the end only the easy part got done, a straight property-tax cut, without the offsetting revenue measures. Bush claimed this is actually what he'd wanted all along. He called it a noble effort. But when it was time to aim for the White House, it was crucial that he get the tax music exactly right; the whole strategy depended on it, and not just for winning the primaries. If conservatives came to think Bush was an ardent tax cutter, they would be willing to let him roam much closer to the center on just about everything else to win the heart of independents. He moved the party on immigration and education, says Grover Norquist, godfather of all tax cutters, but no Republican could have abandoned tax cuts and won the primary, or the general. So Bush wanted a tax cut that he could defend when the inevitable Democratic barrage began, one that would support his claim to be a different kind of Republican. For one with a reputation of not sweating the details, Bush was obsessed with that struggling working mom who earned around $20,000 a year but who was getting killed at tax time because of a quirk in the code. He said she faced a tollgate on the road to the middle class, and he ordered his economists to smooth the way. I want a package that deals directly with this problem, he said. Through the summer and fall of 1999, Bush's economists, led by supply-sider Larry Lindsey, trooped down to Austin with proposal after proposal to lower the marginal tax rate for all payers and eliminate Bush's tollgate. But the smart guys could never quite satisfy the Governor; he kept demanding rewrites until he was convinced the plan did enough for working families to protect him from the charge that he was the Country Club Candidate. Bush said it over and over, says Indiana businessman Al Hubbard, who helped organize the economic team. You've got to deal with the lower end. So we went back to the drawing board. Eventually, Lindsey and Stanford economist John Cogan came up with a plan to drop the bottom rate from 15% to 10%, and double the kiddie tax credit from $500 to $1,000 and make it available to people who earn up to $200,000. When the provisions for the repeal of the estate tax and marriage penalties are mixed in, Bush's plan still tilts heavily toward the rich. But the new cuts at the bottom end (worth at least $1,000 to a waitress mom making $22,000 a year) armed Bush with something Republicans have not recently been wise enough to bring along to the battle: tax cuts for those real people. When the plan was released, it was criticized by Forbes for not being bold enough and by Gore for being unfair. I must be doing something right, said Bush. Another nominee might have added some fabric softener after the primaries, concentrated on more centrist stuff, and a lot of senior Republicans argued privately for Bush to do just that, to pick up John McCain's more austere economic plan instead, emphasize debt reduction and iron out the wrinkles in the tax plan. But Bush held fast because he believed he alone, not his royal mathematicians, had broken the code, concocted a proposal that was big enough to please his base and fair enough to satisfy the middle. Over time he got better at talking about it; he stopped confusing billion with trillion. By the closing weeks of the race he talked about it everywhere, even in schools, and with every bit as much theological certainty as when he says there are no second-class children and no second-class dreams. The People's Pal Maybe a shy man needs to be a populist and promise to fight for little guys. Al Gore wasn't going to be their friend, he wasn't likely to charm them; but he could be their bodyguard and protect them from polluters, swindlers, profiteers. Gore had a crisis with politics after Vietnam. He drifted through divinity school and into journalism, but as his biographer Bill Turque notes, his longtime friends saw this as just stretching the rubber band before it yanked him back to the family business. Why else practice the tricks that help you remember people's names and faces, take that speed-reading course? He may not have been a natural, but he was willing to work at it, visit more factories, drive farther, sleep less. Before heading off for his very first political speech at the Carthage, Tenn., courthouse, he ran inside and threw up. His Tennessee constituents were more conservative than he, as his father had discovered about himself only too late, so Al's Harvard friends and his journalistic colleagues were surprised to hear him defending gun owners, calling homosexuality abnormal and making pro-life-sounding noises. But Gore believed he couldn't help people if they didn't trust him, see him as one of them, and the main thing he promised to do was fight for his people, for their Social Security checks, for universal telephone service, for the sacred Tennessee Valley Authority. He built an intricate, exhausting system for staying on top of voter concerns. He invited himself to garden-club meetings and farm co-ops. He averaged 250 town meetings a year. As a member of the Investigations and Oversight subcommittee of Commerce, he got subpoena power and the chance to expose everything from tainted baby formula to toxic-waste dumps to influence peddling in the contact-lens-solution business. He was a tireless, exhaustively prepared prosecutor, but he was not ideologically predictable. He supported serious campaign-finance reform before McCain made it cool — and before his own travails at the Buddhist temple demanded some public penance. As Democrats go, Gore became something of a curiosity: cautious on social issues; liberal on civil rights and liberties; progressive on consumer matters; distinctly hawkish on national security; and obsessed with issues like global warming, which only a small percentage of the electorate put on their list of things to worry about at any time. He once described himself as a raging moderate, but he was also a loner, far from the backslapping Democratic cloakrooms. Once on board the Clinton team, he took his place to the right of Clinton and Hillary, pushing the fights to shrink the government, balance the budget, reform welfare, free up trade. But the question of where Gore stood misses the more interesting one of how he stood. What's most distinctive about Gore isn't that he's left or right but that he is most relaxed when he's in a fight. He's always been a tough, take-no-prisoners campaigner; he was almost always the first person in the White House to pick a fight with Republicans, start an argument, tell Dick Armey off in a private White House meeting or put Ross Perot on the spot. That was a huge calling card in a White House that often woke up each morning and read in the papers that it had been given up for dead. Fast forward to 1999, when Gore set out to become his own man and staked his claim to the presidency not on the past and the record and the best economy in human history but on the future and his promise to be the crusading hall monitor against price-gouging drug companies, corporate polluters and fat-cat campaign contributors. He took his highly stylized brand for a test drive during the primaries, turning back Bradley's ambush by repeating over and over, I will fight for you. But why, after Bradley was duly buried, did Gore not do what candidates are all taught in Poli Sci 101 and pivot back to the center for the general election? Partly because his base was still wobbling; he kept stalling at about 80% of registered Democrats, even as Republicans were more than 90% stapled to Bush by summer. Gore, a free trader, had only 45% of union households in June; Ralph Nader was attracting enough lefties and anti-globalists and environmentalists to tip states like Wisconsin and Oregon into Bush's column. Gore's advisers argued that they would have to rebuild the Democratic coalition bloc by bloc, first the night-shift waitresses, then the restless middle class, then finally make a run for the soccer moms. Look, he wasn't exciting anyone, says a senior Democratic strategist. He had nothing left to lose. Hell, (populism) was the only thing he could do to excite people. Republicans were speechless at the gift: if Bush was working mightily to pitch his tent squarely in the center of the playing field, it sure helped him that Gore seemed to be laying down his weapons. Here's what he wasn't saying very loudly: Care about child poverty? It's the lowest in 20 years. Unemployment? Lowest since 1969. Don't like Big Government? It's smaller as a percentage of the GNP than at any time since 1965. Middle-class tax cuts? Clinton put through the largest of those in 11 years in 1997. Gore wasn't saying any of this. He was saying elections are always about the future, and that this election was not a reward for past performance. Pretty much everyone in the White House thinks this is so nutty it must be personal, not tactical: Gore just can't stand to run on Clinton's record because the blood between them is so bad. But Gore's polling shows that even people who think the economy is great are slow to give the government, much less the Vice President, any credit for it. Besides, in a race where authenticity is at a premium, the populism is real to him. It takes him back to where he started in politics. Al Gore inherited a fighting streak for the underclass from his father, says longtime Gore adviser Roy Neel. If you were a poor factory worker with a backyard satellite dish in rural Tennessee as your only real link to the world and big cable companies were telling you to shove it, then Al Gore was your guy. As the race winds tight into these final days, both candidates are being judged not just by the promises they make but by the impressions they leave. When Bush talks about his tax cut, it allows him to strum all the most optimistic chords of this moment: there's plenty of money, we can afford to give some back to you, you know best how to spend it, isn't this a great country? Gore tries to make a fairness attack, all those benefits going to the top 1%. But according to a Time/CNN poll last week, Americans feel so hopeful that fully 19% of them think they are in that top 1%, and an additional 20% expect to be one day. It turns out to be Bush who makes a fairness case: Why shouldn't everyone who pays taxes get a tax cut? And in a twist of the knife, he has even made it a kind of character test, a symbol of courage and constancy. I haven't changed my position on this issue, Bush said last week in Missouri. I haven't fine-tuned my message. I have said the same thing for 15 months since I laid it out. It is a straight shot at Gore's central weakness, the impression he gives voters that he doesn't quite know who he is. True populists who were sick of Clinton's slushy Third Way claptrap love all that fighting talk. But if they really want action, it's Nader who's proposing a Marshall Plan for the inner cities and an $8.50 minimum wage. Instead Gore promises tax credits for college and making that commute a little easier and a prescription-drug entitlement for every grandma. But the gentle program aimed right at the swing voters gets lost because they are so annoyed by Gore's aggressive manner. But that's just one half of the puzzle. Bush sings a sweet song. He's the uniter-not-a-divider. But his entire campaign is designed to mask a basic question: Bush may know who he is, but does anyone else in his party? While Bush runs as a different kind of Republican, majority whip Tom Delay has not changed; much of the rest of the leadership has not changed; the party platform has barely changed. He is treated as the messiah by conservatives left in the wilderness since Newt Gingrich was exiled, who have been willing all year long to mute their horror at that inclusive language and mushy bipartisanship. But for the true believers, pragmatism ends on Election Day, when payment comes due, and there are people close to Bush who think that if he wins, his problem is going to be not with Democrats but with Republicans. And then there is Bush himself: he promises that what you see is what you get, but then look at what you get: in Texas he tried for huge, sweeping tax reform, but when only half of it passed, he said he was fine with that. So which part of his current tax plan is he willing to compromise over, the part his party donors expect or the part that $22,000 mom is counting on? Who's winking at whom? Whose fingers are crossed? Something is likely to change forever next Tuesday night. It sure would be nice to know what. For an electorate caught in times of harrowing change, when the day starts with a choice of 15 kinds of coffee and five ways to get your e-mail and your kids have more homework in grade school than you had in college and you sometimes feel grateful for traffic jams just because they give you time to think, the last thing we want from politics is more uncertainty. And for voters who don't want any more change, these two clever, complicated candidates have made it hard even to guess which one is more likely to deliver it.