WASHINGTON - The difference between the perspective of President Bush and that of the Democrats seeking to replace him has never been plainer than it was on Tuesday night after he delivered his State of the Union address.
Less than a minute into his speech, Mr. Bush defined the nation in terms of "the war on terror" he has made his primary mission since Sept. 11, 2001. His top priority is "making America more secure," and the first specific action he requested of Congress was the extension of the Patriot Act, the expansion of surveillance power enacted in the first weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
As it happens, that piece of legislation has become a favorite target of the Democratic presidential candidates. Even those who originally voted for it now claim (along with many libertarian conservatives) that it has been used in ways that threaten civil liberties and the invasion of privacy.
But the debate between the President and his opponents runs much deeper than this particular bill.
In this first month of the long campaign, the Democrats as a group have decided that the principal challenges facing the nation are right here at home - jobs, education, health care, the environment - while Mr. Bush is profoundly convinced that the most serious threats lie abroad.
"I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all," Mr. Bush said. "They view terrorism more as a crime, a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments [But] after the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States, and war is what they got."
And war is what they will get if Mr. Bush is re-elected. While Democrats talk earnestly of "internationalizing" the rebuilding of Iraq and enlisting the United Nations and reluctant allies into a revived coalition against terrorist states, Mr. Bush argues that as long as he is President, "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people."
This fundamental disagreement about national priorities - really, about the nature of the world, the state of the nation, and the priorities of government - is what makes the stakes in the coming election much larger than usual.
Mr. Bush fleshed out the back half of his speech with a compendium of domestic initiatives, seeking to revive his 2000 campaign claim to being a "compassionate conservative."
And to be sure, all the Democrats vow to maintain the strength of the armed forces and protect national security.
But do not be misled. Mr. Bush believes he deserves re-election, not because of No Child Left Behind or Medicare prescription drugs, but because - as he reminded the television audience - he has avoided another terrorist attack on this country for 28 months and has signaled nations around the world, by his pre-emptive war on Saddam Hussein, that he will take the offensive against security threats wherever he finds them.
The leading Democratic candidates - Howard Dean, John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark, and the rest - believe Mr. Bush deserves defeat, not because they differ with his handling of postwar Iraq, but because - as Mr. Edwards puts it - his domestic policies have separated America into two nations, the privileged and prosperous on one side and the struggling majority of families on the other.
A dispassionate observer could argue that both are correct, that America is a nation at war but also a country facing growing inequality and lagging in its obligations to children, dis<0x00AD>placed workers, and the needy.
But when budgets are passed - even with deficits of the size politicians of both parties seem heedlessly willing to entertain - priorities must be set. And that is where the two parties fundamentally diverge.
The voters themselves are ambivalent. When they talk about their concerns, they tend to focus on down-home matters: strained household budgets, worries about layoffs and outsourcing, medical bills, the pressures on their school-age youngsters, and the rising costs of college.
But security as Mr. Bush defines it is also on their minds, symbolized by concern over friends and family serving in Iraq, but also flashing back to that terrible September morning when their TV sets showed the horror of the World Trade Center's destruction.
It is, to some extent, a mind versus heart battle. And it makes this an election like no other I have ever seen.
David Broder is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.38.89037 -77.03196