WASHINGTON - On Nov. 2, voters in the presidential election can choose between a rich, white, middle-aged Yalie from a prestigious family, and a rich, white, middle-aged Yalie from a prestigious family.
And they couldn't be more different.
While Republican President Bush and Democrat John Kerry each promise jobs, peace, security and better education, their road maps for getting there are as different as their running mates, as different as the paths they chose as young men.
While Bush offered a dramatic contrast to Al Gore, his Democratic opponent in 2000, he nonetheless ran on a platform of "compassionate conservatism" that dulled the divisions between the candidates.
Not this time.
The president's unyielding conservatism, his religiosity, and his certitude are set sharply against Kerry's liberalism, his quiet Catholicism and his often maddening penchant for nuance.
The candidates and their surrogates have spent a record $1.9-billion telling you what they they want you to know. Here are a few other things you should know about these two contemporaries, whose styles and policies are, in some ways, as different as West Texas and Massachusetts.
* * * American Aristocracy
George Walker Bush was born July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Conn., the grandson of a U.S. senator. His father, future President George H.W. Bush, moved his young family to West Texas and entered the oil business, and the kids were raised in Midland.
Bush, the oldest of five children, returned east for high school at Philips Exeter Academy, an exclusive prep school in Andover, Mass., where his father had gone. He then followed his father to Yale University.
John Forbes Kerry was also a child of privilege. He was born outside Denver on Dec. 11, 1943, while his father, Richard Perry, the son of Hungarian immigrants and an Army Air Corps Forces test pilot, was serving in Colorado. His mother, Rosemary Forbes, was from a prominent, old money family with estates in Massachusetts and France.
Although Kerry's political hero was President John F. Kennedy, his parents were liberal Democrats, and his mother was an early environmentalist.
By the time he landed at St. Paul's, an exclusive prep school in Concord, N.H., Kerry had attended a half-dozen schools and spent two years in Germany during the 1950s, while his father - who became a foreign service officer - was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.
One more little nugget: Through Kerry's maternal grandmother, Margaret Tyndal Winthrop, who came from one of the founding New England families, Kerry and Bush are distant cousins, twice removed.
The college life
At Yale, both were members of the prestigious Skull & Bones society and both were popular, but the similarities stop there.
Bush, class of 1968, quit the baseball team after his freshman year and turned to cheerleading. He served as president of his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and was popular and fun-loving.
He excelled at making friends and displayed the magnetism that would later make him a formidable politician. He majored in history.
Kerry, class of 1966, had a broad range of interests. He was president of the student government association, a debating champion and a hockey player. He majored in political science.
During his senior year, Kerry enlisted in the Navy and would later skipper a Swift boat in the Mekong delta of Vietnam, service that would earn him medals for bravery and provide a political anchor for the next three decades.
Bush took another route. Shortly before graduation, with his student draft deferment about to expire, he won a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard.
Where they were in 1971
Bush strongly supported the war and was flying fighter jets for the Texas guard from Ellington Field, near Houston.
In the following year he would miss his required flight physical and be grounded, but records from 1971 show he was an excellent pilot.
Kerry returned from war and was marching for peace with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In a way, he made his political debut in April of that year, with his memorable testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
His performance was so good, President Richard Nixon told aides he feared Kerry would become another "demagogue" like consumer activist Ralph Nader.
The end of 1971 found Kerry about to embark on a new adventure: Newly married to his best friend's sister, Julia Thorne, he would try to parlay his success as a frontman for the peace movement into elected office.
Politics and Polishing
Bush lost his first campaign, for a West Texas congressional seat in 1978, thanks to a mistake he would never make again: He wasn't enough of a populist.
Although Bush had grown up in Midland and married a local girl, Laura Welch, his Democratic opponent depicted him as an Eastern elitist who was riding on his daddy's name.
"The main lesson he learned was he could not allow himself again to be out good-ol'-boyed," said Dr. Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. "He learned to be folksy... . He just learned to make more of his Texas roots and downplay his Eastern origins."
In 1994 he ran for governor, defeating the popular Democratic incumbent, Ann cq Richards - a race even his mother didn't think he could win.
He was re-elected in 1998, the first Texas governor to win a second consecutive term, and he built a reputation for bipartisanship and coalition-building.
That changed when he became president. With his first round of tax cuts, for example, Bush toured the country whipping up public support for his plan in states where incumbent senators faced tough challenges. Meanwhile, he pulled the United States out of treaties on global warming and nuclear proliferation.
"I think the way they saw it, they being Karl Rove and their advisers, was that they were in a different milieu" after the 2000 election, in which Bush lost the popular vote, Buchanan said. "The antidote they saw to the weakness .... was to go for broke and act like they won by 15 points, as a way of compensating."
Politics and Polishing, Part II
Kerry lost his first campaign, too, a defeat that his biographer, Douglas Brinkley, called "crushing."
It was 1972, and Kerry was shopping for an open U.S. House seat in Massachusetts. He chose the district around Lowell, a working-class town with a high unemployment rate, and campaigned on ending the war. But his opponent - and the Lowell Sun - branded him an outsider, out of touch with local concerns. He lost narrowly.
With few prospects, Kerry went to law school at Boston College, then joined the local prosecutor's office when he graduated in 1976. Kerry wouldn't try politics again until 1982, when he was elected lieutenant governor under Gov. Michael Dukakis.
He and his wife would soon separate.
Two years later, Kerry won an open U.S. Senate seat and has won re-election three times.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey cq says the finest - and most difficult - hour of his close friend's Senate career came when Kerry and Republican Sen. John McCain, also a Vietnam vet, led an investigation into whether Vietnam was still holding American prisoners of war.
At the time, in 1992, many people believed it was. Kerry and McCain discovered it wasn't, outraging many POW and veterans groups.
But by working with the first Bush administration, Kerry and McCain opened the door to the normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam, and their findings helped end decades of speculation about stranded POWs.
"He and McCain provoked a lot of hate and anger, (by finding) that there weren't POWs being held there," Kerrey said while campaigning for Kerry in Tampa last week.
Kerry is a Roman Catholic who cites his church upbringing and years as an altar boy as having laid the foundation for his faith, but he is usually pretty quiet about his relationship with God. In recent days, when discussing religion, he has put it in the context of the faithful's duty to help others.
He is often at odds with the Catholic Church's teachings, and some of its leaders have urged parishioners to vote against him. Most glaringly, Kerry favors legal abortion, which is inimical to forbidden by the church.
Bush, by contrast, is an evangelical Christian, a Methodist who was born again at age 39, who often speaks of his relationship with God. He says faith plays a big role in how he governs, and tells supporters he is guided by prayer. He has described the U.S. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq as godly pursuits to spread democracy.
As president, he has put his faith to work: His first week in office, he created the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which last year awarded $1.17-billion to churches and other religious groups running social service programs, from substance abuse treatment centers to homeless shelters.
Bush relies on a small core of loyal aides to analyze issues and provide him with recommendations. Critics say this produces an echo chamber because they tell him what he wants to hear, and Democratic lawmakers often complain the president smothers dissent. Aides say he does consider different sides of issues.
Kerry casts a wide net, friends say, often seeking the opinions of a dozen people before making a decision. He quizzes his staff aggressively to ensure he has considered all sides. His brother, Cameron, said he does not mind dissent.
"He's certainly not spoon-fed information," Cam Kerry said. "He will challenge information and try to cut through things."
While the president enjoys a reputation for sticking to his positions, he has changed his mind on an array of issues: Bush opposed an independent investigation of the 9/11 attacks, then supported it; he campaigned against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, then allowed limited funding; he said the states should decide gay marriage, then backed a federal ban; he opposed tariffs on imported steel, then supported them.
Bush: Commerce Secretary Don Evans, chairman of Bush's 2000 campaign and his best friend since the 1970s; Vice President Dick Cheney; national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a foreign policy scholar and former professor and administrator at Stanford University; Karl Rove, his chief political strategist since 1994; and Karen Hughes, former TV reporter and trusted adviser.
Kerry: Cameron Kerry, his younger brother, a Boston attorney; Tom Vallely, an old friend who managed his first campaign in 1972; U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., a foreign policy expert and one of Kerry's closest friends in the Senate; Roger Altman, investment banker and former deputy treasury secretary; retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy; and Richard Holbrooke, former deputy secretary of state.
Where they get their money:
Biggest givers (by group):
Bush: retirees, $21.1-million (second is law firms, $11-million)
Kerry: law firms, $20.6-million (second is retirees, $14.9-million)
Biggest single contributor (includes political action committees, employees and their families)
Bush: Morgan Stanley, $591,230
Kerry: University of California, $568,650
Bush: Carl H. Lindner Jr., Ohio, American Financial Group, $2.6-million
Kerry: Alan Solomont, cq Massachusetts, Solomont Bailis Ventures, $694,827
Biggest Zip Code
Bush: 10021 (New York City, N.Y.), $1.3-million
Kerry: 10021 cq (New York City, N.Y.), $2.1-million
When he's not in Washington or on the campaign trail, Bush likes visiting his ranch in Crawford, Texas, cutting brush in shirtsleeves with a chainsaw - a working man, doing working-man things.
Kerry likes photographers to tag along when he hunts duck and geese - a sportsman, not an antigun liberal Democrat.
But they have other passions, too, that aren't so politically pointed.
Bush is a baseball fan who follows the major leagues; he once owned the Texas Rangers. He lists "watching baseball" as one of his favorite hobbies.
He loves to fish, and he mountain bikes and challenges reporters in his press pool to keep pace on his near-daily jogs.
Kerry likes to play outside, too. He has a house at a ski resort in Idaho, and at age 55 he learned to snowboard.
Even on the campaign trail, he's never without his bicycle or his classical guitar, which he is said to pick on the bus occasionally.
WHERE THEY STAND (their positions on a few select issues):
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has a nickname for the president: Tax-Cutter-in-Chief.
Bush believes tax cuts will spur consumer spending and business investment, leading to a stronger economy and more jobs. He has backed that philosophy with action, pushing through five wide-ranging tax cut bills, worth a total of $1.6-trillion over the next 10 years.
Kerry supports some of those cuts, particularly ones that increase the child-tax credit and remove the extra income tax that married couples pay. But he says Bush's breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans are irresponsible at a time of massive spending for war and homeland security. He would end them.
Kerry often notes that Bush is the first president since the Great Depression to preside over a net loss of jobs, and he criticizes him for turning a budgetary surplus into a $415-billion deficit.
Meanwhile, a corporate tax bill the president signed last week includes $78-billion in deductions for U.S. companies, including deductions for overseas operations. The president and congressional Republicans say this and other provisions will prompt companies to invest and create more American jobs.
Kerry says such tax breaks provide no incentive for keeping jobs in America, and he did not vote for on the bill. Kerry also wants to cut the corporate tax rate by 5 percent, to about 30 percent, and has pledged to eliminate provisions that allow companies to defer paying U.S. taxes on foreign income.
No matter who wins, this won't be easy, and neither man's plan differs drastically from the other's.
Both acknowledge U.S. troops will be there for years, although Kerry has promised to significantly reduce troop levels in five years by training Iraqi national guard troops faster, and by recruiting more help from other countries.
While Kerry voted to give the president the authority to invade Iraq, he now says that was a mistake based on the Bush administration's argument that Saddam Hussein was hoarding biological and chemical weapons. Those weapons have not been found.
Kerry also questions whether the administration put enough resources in Iraq, as have some military leaders, and he says U.S. forces are stretched too thin. Kerry has proposed increasing the Army by two divisions, or about 40,000 soldiers.
Both candidates support overhauling the nation's intelligence community and appointing someone to oversee it, in hopes of preventing the communication lapses among agencies that helped several of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers slip into the country.
They did take different routes to get there. Kerry almost immediately endorsed the recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which called for restructuring congressional oversight of intelligence; establishing a national clearinghouse for intelligence; and hiring a national intelligence czar with hiring, firing and budgetary authority.
Bush has endorsed essentially the same changes. However, the House and Senate have passed widely divergent versions, and the House bill includes a raft of provisions unrelated to intelligence reform.
Democrats blame Bush for not doing more to win a compromise. The critique is not wholly unfounded, since the president has pushed his agenda through the Republican Congress many times before.
The next president likely will appoint one to four justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, during his next term, as senior justices retire during his term, and conservatives say re-electing Bush would present their best chance ever for overturning Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
Kerry supports legalized abortion and it is unfathomable that he would appoint anyone who would upset the status quo.
While Bush has said his Supreme Court choices would not have to meet a "litmus test" on any single issue, he has named conservative judges to lower courts, and evangelical leaders say they expect him to pick social conservatives for the high court, too.
The president has said the justices he admires most are the most conservative, and most stridently antiabortion: Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Embryonic stem cell research
This has emerged as the most pressing social debate of the campaign, and the candidates' views differ sharply.
Creating embryonic stem cells destroys the embryo, which many anti-abortion advocates, including the president, equate with abortion.
But Bush also recognized that stem cells may hold the cure for a variety of diseases, and in 2002 he authorized funding for research on about 70 existing stem cell lines.
However, experts say only about 20 of the lines are viable, and most agree the president's rules will slow research. Kerry would end Bush's restrictions and vows to vastly increase research funding.
-- Information from Open Secrets, Frontline, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press was used in this report. Times staff writers Bill Adair and Adam Smith contributed to this report, as did Times researcher Carolyn Edds.