The election is shaking down to a contest between the respective presumed incompetences of George Bush on the economy and Bill Clinton on foreign affairs and national security.
That may not be what the men will talk about most. They will wish to distract from it.
Badgered about the recession, the president will charge that G-o-d is not in the Democratic platform.
Asked how he would handle Iraq, Governor Clinton will accuse Republicans of lying his record.
Each party's convention, catering to its own enthusiasts, erected great blobs of targets for the other to attack. The Republicans can crusade against Democratic commitments to the gay community, the Democrats against dictation by the ayatollahs.
And each party is going to accuse the other of the worst sin in a recession, incumbency. On the Republican side, it is the president who is guilty; on the Democratic, the Congress; but it is a shameful condition not readily admitted.
Family values are touted as the make-or-break issue. The beauty is that nobody agrees what they mean, in the context of laws and policies the election might affect. Code words of great emotion and no legislative relevance are popular with the professionals.
The life of the unborn vs. freedom of choice do make for a legitimate issue. It creates a crisis of conscience for many members of both parties. The Republicans came up with a plank to the right of Ireland that most delegates disapprove. The Democrats forbade debate.
The net benefit is to the Democrats and Republicans dread it. But abortion is not the most important issue to most voters. The crucial election on whether to overturn Roe vs. Wade was 1988. Everyone knew it. A majority of the voters favored choice but elected George Bush for other reasons.
The recent Pennsylvania decision threw abortion into presidential, congressional and legislative elections, where the Republicans don't want it. But whoever is elected, it is too late to prevent further wreckage to Roe vs. Wade.
Marilyn Quayle suggested this election be a referendum on the proper role of women. It won't. Education and the economy shape that role. One way to get some women back to full-time child-rearing would be to pay husbands better salaries. Voters may believe Clinton-Gore would achieve that better than Bush-Quayle.
Mr. Clinton is ahead now because of voter perception of the president's indifference to the business cycle.
But as the campaign wears on, Mr. Clinton will be hard-put to reconcile Democratic social programs with his budget priority. He is going to be tested again and again on foreign affairs. He is going to be on the defensive about his fitness for office.
Mr. Bush is going to have to deal with the economy. The trouble with his laissez-faire fatalism is that his constituency, business, does not believe it. Businesses demand government action to protect the climate for business generally and their own in particular. He risks losing Republican votes on this as on abortion rights.
Mr. Clinton's weakness is his questionable presidentiality. This includes youth, manner, federal inexperience, lack of foreign policy credibility and whatever character issues the Republicans can make stick.
Mr. Bush's weakness is the economy. If it rebounded, so would he.
The challenge to Mr. Clinton is to demonstrate his own presidentiality. That to Mr. Bush is to be seen taking charge of the economy.
On this will turn judicial selection, energy, environment, military, foreign aid, health care and other policies that the next president will decide.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.