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SCOT LEHIGH

Too picky to vote?

UNDECIDED VOTERS, get a grip.The two presidential candidates have debated three times. They have discussed matters ranging from foreign policy to homeland security to nuclear nonproliferation to education to healthcare to job creation to fiscal and tax policy to tort reform to the environment to outsourcing to abortion to immigration to stem cell research.

And the verdict from the undecideds? They aren't impressed.

Take, for example, some first-time voters the Globe surveyed Wednesday at New Hampshire's Saint Anselm College. Their comments about the debates included these, um, incisive observations:

"It's scripted, and it's totally planned." "I would argue it's not even democracy." "These debates do nothing for them. They spew all these statistics and they say they have this plan and that plan." The New York Times, in a transcontinental talker, found the same note of weary dissatisfaction.

"I didn't see anything significant, anything new, to sway me one way or the other," said an undecided Iowan. One voter didn't like George W. Bush's attempt at humor. Another took umbrage at John Kerry's self-deprecating quip about marrying up. Yet another complained of the president: "It's not what he did, but what he didn't do. He didn't woo me."Speaking of wooing, the Saint Anselm students were even put off by Bush's assertion that it was love at first sight when he met Laura at a backyard barbecue. "It's a joke, it's so superficial," offered one. "Right, why can't he just say how they really met?" complained another.Never mind love at first sight. I'm worried that these kids are going to spend their lives single for a simple reason: No one that picky is ever going to find a spouse who meets his or her standards.Folks, some perspective, please.

Now, it's no doubt vexing to have candidates confuse you with a host of plans on the various issues, particularly when you've got midterms looming on the distant horizon. And certainly using facts and figures is an odious trick. What are they trying to do, marshal the evidence to build an argument or something? Maybe if George W. had said: "I mean, on the economy, I'm totally like, stay the course. I want to cut taxes and he wants to raise them. I mean, duh."

Then there's this idea. "Maybe I just need to hear somebody . . . say, `Look, we don't know what we're going to do,' " a Colorado undecided told the Associated Press. Now, there's a compelling campaign message for you.But actually, as debates go, these have been pretty good ones. And certainly this is a year when the tiresome, hoary complaint of ill-informed voters that there's no real difference between the two candidates is particularly untrue.

Over the course of their three encounters, Bush, a conservative, and Kerry, a liberal, have outlined very different philosophies and programs on both foreign and domestic issues.

Bush has insisted that invading Iraq was the right decision; Kerry has declared the invasion a diversion from the real war on terror. The Republican has made it clear he doesn't put a particular premium on winning the good opinion of the world. The Democrat has stressed that US action must be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the world.

Bush would offer tax incentives to make it easier for individuals to buy healthcare and would allow part of a person's Social Security levy to be put into a personal retirement account. Kerry believes that government should play a much bigger role in healthcare by expanding Medicaid and picking up most of catastrophic health costs to lower premiums for those in private healthcare plans. He opposes Bush's plans for Social Security.Bush says all taxpayers deserve tax relief and thus would retain the tax cuts for upper earners. Kerry would repeal tax cuts for the well-to-do and use the revenues for domestic programs.

The president opposes abortion. Kerry considers it a constitutional right.For anyone who cares about substance over style, it shouldn't be all that difficult to find the candidate who better matches his or her political inclinations. Meanwhile, for those truly trying to sort through charge and countercharge, the Annenberg Public Policy Center's excellent website, FactCheck.org, is only a mouse click away. All of which is another way of saying to the undecided voters: By all means, decide at your own pace, but as you do, couldn't you take your petty annoyances a little less seriously -- and the election a little more seriously? Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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