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U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama gesture towards each other during the second U.S. presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012.


Bruised and battered by hurricanes real and economic, a disheartened but determined United States chooses its next president.

How it chooses will decide the shape of the nation in this decade: the manner in which Washington tackles the struggling economy; whether it confronts or accommodates the rise of China, the anger of Islamists, a frightened Europe and, yes, a cautious, concerned Canada.

What does it mean to those watching the election from outside? Before the end of this year, the lame-duck U.S.

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Congress must decide whether to permit or forestall measures that would impose new taxes and spending cuts to rein in the deficit.

Such harsh discipline, in such a precarious economy, could send the United States over a fiscal cliff and back into recession, and Canada along with it. The presidential winner Tuesday will be the most powerful voice in shaping any compromise, if one is to be found.

This is far down a darkly lit road from four years ago, when Barack Obama captured the possibility of the United States by uniting Hollywood actors, Nevada hotel cleaners, Ohio auto workers, Boston university professors and millions more to become the first African- American president.

Despite real accomplishments in health care, education, the environment and foreign policy, on this Democratic President's watch, many of those millions have suffered through lost jobs and foreclosed mortgages.

Americans do not feel better off than they felt four years ago. Less terrified, perhaps, because a new Great Depression was averted, but not better off.

And Mr. Obama's inability or unwillingness to cross party lines has deepened the schism between Democrat and Republican, between blue and red.

Yet while his challenger, Mitt Romney, successfully managed Bain Capital, governed Massachusetts and rescued the 2002 Olympics, in seeking the Republican nomination and now the presidency, he has shed so many skins that it has become difficult to say with certainty who this man is or what he stands for.

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The centrist Governor who became a "severely conservative" candidate for the Republican nomination is now a compassionate moderate. Next week, who knows?

Beneath all this lies two Americas. One, a Democratic America, looks to government, not for everything, but at least for some things. The other, a Republican America, would unshackle the chains of government to let each pursue his or her maximum potential.

One would constrain the wealth of the wealthiest to help pay for health care, and to rein in the deficit. The other would lower taxes to unleash economic growth, while tackling the deficit by cutting spending on almost everything but the military.

One would accommodate the emerging new powers in Asia by pivoting the United States from Atlantic to Pacific, seeking new trade deals and stronger alliances; the other would threaten China with economic retaliation unless it accommodates U.S. demands.

These are, at their core, fundamentally different world views. Each commands roughly the same share of partisans committed to their cause. As in every election now for decades, it comes down to a handful of voters – a veneer of moderates – in key swing states.

Both candidates have tailored their messages to these all important voters. Mr. Romney, peeling off another layer of epidermis, has been especially vigorous in modulating his tone.

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The candidate of the party that opposes abortion and stymied immigration reform maintains that lowering taxes will benefit Latino women as well as white men. The candidate who famously wrote off 47 per cent of Americans as too hooked on government dependence to ever vote Republican now speaks of his deep concern for single mothers struggling to get by.

From ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to fighting terrorism and dealing with a nuclear Iran, Mr.Romney has softened his hawkish rhetoric to the point that there is almost no difference between the two candidates.

The more Mr. Romney has tried to move to the centre on hot-button issues, the more Mr. Obama has tried to push him back. Yet as each appeals to the same undecided voter, both remain captive to their coalitions.

To Mr. Obama and Democrats, Mr. Romney would drain jobs from U.S. businesses and send those jobs to sweat mills overseas; he would steal health care from the poor to give tax breaks to the rich.

To Mr. Romney and Republicans, Mr. Obama is a socialist who would be more at home in some failing, statist European capital. How, they ask, can voters re-elect a President who allowed unemployment to persist at more than 8 per cent for 42 consecutive, crippling months?

How can anyone, they ask, vote for a President who bows before Saudi rulers and apologizes for U.S. values?

It is a testimony to the unfulfilled promise of the Obama presidency that Mr. Romney, with his $10,000 bets, his wife's Cadillacs (it was the number, not the brand), his dizzying shape-shifting, is essentially tied with the Democratic candidate in the polls.

And it is a further sign of the difficulty of the choice facing that thin band of moderates that both candidates needed testimonials from their wives, assuring votersthat their husbands are real people worthy of love.

Yet however close the result – Mr. Obama could well lose the popular vote but win in the Electoral College – one side will prevail. Either America will continue to trudge along, relying on the same economic nostrums of a flawed liberal president, or it will lurch back to the Bush era of tax cuts amid rising deficits. Either it will seek to cool rising temperatures in Asia and the Middle East or it will confront them.

Each maintains that only he can get America working again.

For Canadians whose jobs depend on American exports – that is to say, for most of the Canadian economy – America's choice is their future.

That's what this election means. For all of us.

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