In a contest between faith and reason, America must vote for Mr Kerry and offer hope for the world

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The Independent Online

This polling day has seemed an extravagantly long time in coming. But finally, after a campaign that has been one of the most divisive, most impassioned and most gripping in memory, Americans are going to vote. Dead heats, lawsuits and perverse electoral- college arithmetic permitting, we will know by tomorrow who will be the 44th president of the United States.

For all the excitement of the last weeks of the chase, however, an almost weary consensus has grown up outside America to the effect that, in the end, it hardly matters who wins. George Bush or John Kerry, it is said, may be politicians of a very different stamp, but they would face the same intractable problems and the same constraints on their actions from a finely balanced Congress. There is even a strain of Democratic opinion that contends, not unreasonably, that George Bush should be left in office to pick up the pieces because a Democratic president would make himself so unpopular by trying to repair the damage that he would survive only one term.

The abiding - and infinitely consoling - truth is, though, that elections do matter, and that this election matters perhaps more than any other US presidential election of recent years. And the outcome is of vital importance, not only to Americans, but to the rest of the world.

Americans have complained about the inadequacies of the two candidates, and we echo their misgivings: both have serious flaws. For months, Mr Kerry seemed unspontaneous, inconsistent and so lacking in political acumen that he gave Mr Bush almost a free pass. Some voters may lament the vacuum where the ideological centre of America used to be. The one complaint they cannot make, however, is that they have no choice. There are real differences between the candidates; real differences of character, real differences of policy and philosophy. How Americans vote this year could genuinely set the world on a new course.

A man of reason and complexity is challenging a man of faith in hock to the religious right. An internationalist faces a president who launched a war unilaterally. A former soldier turned peace campaigner faces a self-styled war president with dubious military credentials. A social and fiscal progressive confronts a social conservative and spendthrift on whose watch both the budget and trade deficits have ballooned. As duels between opposites, their televised debates were compelling.

This is an unusual election, too, not only because the United States is engaged in a war, but because the outside world impinges more than at any time since the Cold War. Time and again, John Kerry tried to steer the campaign back to the domestic issues on which George Bush's record is its own indictment. Time and again, he failed. The last-minute intervention by Osama bin Laden only underlined what the voters had known for more than three years: after 11 September, this would be an election where national security would outweigh almost any other consideration.

Americans clearly appreciate the gravity of this moment. The crowds thronging to the Democratic primaries in the spring, and the surge of new voters rushing to register since then, both testify to the unusual intensity of public engagement, as does the number of lawyers both major parties have lined up to fight their corner in the event of disputes. Whoever said participatory democracy was dead?

How America votes today will expose the depth of America's divisions. What George Bush offers is more of the same: a perpetual "war on terror" that will keep the country in thrall to paranoia; a military presence that will remain in Iraq until such time as Iraqis understand that they should embrace American-style democracy; yet more tax cuts for the rich in the hope that the vastly increased wealth at the top will filter down and inspire the growing numbers without work to search harder for a job.

This is the reality, and it is very far from the vision Mr Bush set out four years ago. Elected without a majority of the popular vote, he promised a united America, a compassionate form of conservatism, fiscal responsibility and a foreign policy conducted with humility. He has traduced every one of these promises. He inherited a record budget surplus, record low unemployment and widespread goodwill abroad that swelled to a chorus of "We are all Americans now" after the 11 September attacks. All that has been squandered. The devious illegality of Guantanamo and the abuses of Abu Ghraib should stand as epitaphs for this presidency.

Mr Kerry may owe much of his support to the simple fact that he is not Mr Bush. But however constrained he may be by the Bush legacy - the war that must end, the deficits depressing the dollar, the yawning wealth gap - he is more than not-Bush. His campaign has shown that he understands the dangers for America of paranoia. He understands the military and diplomatic disaster that the Iraq war has become. He understands the dangers of the debt that Mr Bush has stored up for future generations and he understands the damage that Mr Bush has inflicted on America's good name abroad. Together, these are recommendations enough for Americans to give John Kerry a chance.