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Katy Burns

Katy Burns: Romney, Obama - The differences are enormous

Hey, you undecided voters! What on earth is wrong with you? What do you need, for goodness' sake? A night in the White House Lincoln bedroom, with Barack Obama himself standing by to tuck you in? A jet ski ride around Lake Winnipesaukee with Mitt Romney as your own personal water pilot?

Since early 2007, Obama has been campaigning for election or re-election as president, and it probably was at least a possibility for a few years before that. He has been president for nearly four years in which the U.S. people have had a first-class view of the occupants of the fishbowl that serves as today's White House.

Romney has been running for president at least since 2007, when he left the Massachusetts governor's office, and my hunch is his zeal to capture the oval office probably actually originated when his own father was rejected for the presidency back in 1968. He, too, has had high public visibility over the years, thanks to his stint with the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, his four years as governor and his unrelenting campaigning ever since.

If there is a sentient human being of voting age who doesn't by now know a whole lot about both of these men, he or she has clearly been hiding in a cave somewhere.

And yet, just 16 days before a presidential election between Obama and Romney that many objective observers are calling one of the most consequential in recent history, there still are anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of the electorate who tell pollsters they are undecided.

Fewer Americans probably don't have an opinion on the most recent American Idol winner.

It's downright crazy. The contrast between the two contestants can't be more stark. They embrace diametrically opposite political philosophies.

And we as a nation face enormous decisions in the coming years and even months - on our national budget; on rebuilding an economy devastated by years of global financial turmoil; on our massive defense program in a time when major land wars are less and less likely; on the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (to name just three of the myriad of social safety net programs millions and millions of us depend on); and on the increasingly urgent problem of unchecked climate change and all it portends for the future of the nation and the very planet.

Yet a significant number of potential voters - small in percentage, maybe, but still numbering in the millions - who

have been inundated with information in the last year or more still say, ''Well, golly, I dunno what to think!''

The indecision reached its climax in last Tuesday's ''debate'' between Obama and Romney, when a roomful of earnestly undecided voters, carefully picked by the Gallup organization, assembled at a college in New York to grill the two candidates.

It was, to say the least, a spirited exchange. Some questions were answered better than others. That's the nature of these things, when the practiced, skilled candidates try to be somewhat specific in replying to the audience members while sending a larger, more general message to the enormous national viewing audience. While they try generally not to offend.

Sure, there are times when the answers the candidates give in these affairs are less than satisfying to the questioners, but those chosen to participate are nonetheless remarkably privileged. They get to spend several hours in a relatively intimate setting with the president of the United States and his challenger. After this debate, the audience happily mingled with the most powerful man in the world and the man who may become the most powerful man in the world.

They were able to gauge the two candidates up close in a way that is nearly unheard of today, even in election-happy and much-catered-to New Hampshire. It was an astonishing opportunity.

Later, a man, Kerry Ladka, who felt Obama hadn't fully answered his question, told a Washington Post reporter that after the program ended he and the president had spent several minutes talking. The president satisfied his question. But - surprise! - the questioner was still undecided. Let me note here that Ladka is in his early 60s, so he has a vested interest in the stability of both Social Security and Medicare. Does he know what the candidates' disparate positions are and how they will directly affect his future? Does he care?

Also undecided was Katherine Fenton from Long Island, an aspiring teacher, who thought neither man had answered her question - about women's pay equity - as ''explicitly'' as she wanted. Fenton is a young woman, and she wants to be a teacher. Has she looked in any significant way at either candidate's proposals on women's access to health care? On education? Obama and Romney's views diverge significantly. It's not hard to learn that. Does she care? Has she even tried to find out?

There is, for any curious voter, a treasure trove of information out there. I'm certainly not talking about paying a scintilla of attention to the crackpot alarmist emails circulating endlessly in cyberspace. And if you value your sanity, ignore - fast forward through, delete, whatever it takes - the TV ads polluting the airwaves these days. All they really mean is that high-priced consultants are lining their pockets.

But consider reputable sources.

There are the candidates' own websites. Often you have to weed through the rhetoric to find the actual programs these guys espouse, but they can be useful.

The much-maligned mainstream media have archives full of stories - good, thoughtful and analytical stories - about each of the two candidates. Reputable think tanks have open archives as well. Any number of good government groups have amassed mountains of info on the candidates' positions. Talk seriously with people whose opinions you value. And think about what you've learned.

Try to educate yourself. It's not that hard.

And, y'know, Kerry and Katherine, if you really, truly can't decide between two extraordinarily different candidates? Well, then stay home. Don't vote.

And, to let you in on a little secret, your vote for president doesn't matter anyway. Not in New York, which is a lock for the president. You want to count? Move to a swing state. New Hampshire, for example. We can't be beat for the mountains, the lakes, the foliage, the skiing and the cheap liquor and smokes. And in presidential elections we matter, big time.

That's another story, another column, maybe. Later.

But whatever you do, please spare us your self-involved indecisiveness and dithering.

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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