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Fiery campaign may spark new era of voter interest

WASHINGTON — Somewhere along the way between the big money and the big lies, the Swift Boat slash attacks and the farrago of "Fahrenheit 9/11," a conventional wisdom congealed that this was an awful campaign: too much heat, too little light, so much wrong, not enough right. It was long, costly, raw and nasty — and that means no good.

Oh, really?

Then why is voter turnout projected to be at its highest in at least 12 years, and perhaps in the last 36? Why are millions of first-time registrants expected to flock to the polls on Tuesday or cast absentee ballots or vote early? Why have both candidates raised large amounts of small donations, often over the Internet? Why are Republicans vowing to out-knock Democrats in the door-to-door ground game that the Democrats pioneered?

After a rash of recent elections described in The New York Times as "The Year of the Yawn" or Seinfeldian — that is, about nothing — hasn't the nation finally got what the nattering nabobs always ask for? A passionate electorate, little apathy, candidates with starkly divergent personalities and world views, all displayed in substantive, well-watched debates.

"The answer is maybe," said Harry C. Boyte, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. "If you think of democracy as elections and voting, then this is a great moment. If you think of democracy as more a way of life, it's very uncertain what the result is going to be, and the polarization is very troubling."

Polarization is nothing new in American life. Today's red and blue are pale shadows of the Civil War's blue and gray. In 1828, an editorial cartoonist recalling Andrew Jackson's execution of Seminole Indian sympathizers in his militia days, showed Old Hickory hoisting a man in a noose and declared: "Jackson is to be President and you will be HANGED."

But the breakdown of party organizations, the decline of labor unions, the atomizing intensity of television and the lack of near-universal military service for draft-age men have combined to make democracy seem more like "a kind of consumer good and spectator sport," as Boyte put it, than a workaday commitment in which victors join with vanquished to get things done. "So the real question is whether this highly charged electoral season can help revive a larger civic culture and a productive citizenship," he said. "Whether people can learn to deal with people they disagree with, or may even hate, for the sake of fixing their neighborhood park or school."

The signs are mixed but far from all bad.

Money has poured into this election in new ways — despite recent dogged efforts to regulate it in new ways — and it has done so with all its corrosive power to obscure reasoned debate, limit governing choices, promote narrow self-interest and breed broad cynicism.

But if the independent partisan groups known as 527 committees have spent millions attacking both candidates often started out bankrolled by record-size contributions by billionaires and millionaires, they have also raised additional millions from small donors, and some have raised real issues.

If the Internet has been the source of vicious blogs and half-baked rumors, it has also often been a worthy watchdog on the mainstream media, a direct route to the candidates' records and official Web sites and a means of instantly checking their half-truths and evasions through nonpartisan outlets like FactCheck.org at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center.

Online networking groups like Meetup.com used new technology to breathe life into the oldest American tradition: the town hall meeting. They allowed Howard Dean's supporters — and others — "to create 'alloys,' networks that are mixtures of silicon and real flesh," said Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard. "People are making the connection over the Internet, but what they really want is not just the cyberfriend but a real connection."

And while there are sharp, often partisan differences on questions from gun control to gay rights and abortion, both candidates have made pointed nods to the middle along with bows to their bases. The streams of gay couples lined up for marriage licenses in places like San Francisco prompted legislative backlashes, fierce talk-show fights and a wide variety or reactions pro and con, but no mass public disorder.

"There are no people marching in the streets like there were for integrated bathrooms," said Samuel L. Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego and an expert on voter behavior. "We are divided on a lot of issues. There's polarization at the elite level and polarization in Congress, but not really among the people."

Maybe not. But the forests of yard signs, family feuds, dinner-party arguments and emotional divisions suggest that the full importance of the electoral process is much more appreciated now than it was before the disputed 2000 recount began, and before the Sept. 11 attacks awakened the nation to underappreciated dangers and the power of unforeseen events to shape political destiny.

After all, President Bush campaigned four years ago against nation-building and for a humble foreign policy, and it took the shooting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and shouting wars over civil rights and security at home to raise crucial questions about how differently Al Gore might have handled the job. No one is saying that this election doesn't matter, that the stakes aren't high, that the choices aren't real. American troops are fighting, and often dying, every day.

This election "has all sorts of loaded issues from the real world, especially the war," said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "I don't think even people who are undecided feel neutral. They feel torn between a president they don't really want to re-elect and a candidate they're not sure is big enough to be commander in chief in wartime."

Democracy may seem especially tenuous when passions are highest and the outcome most uncertain. Real concerns remain this year about how — and how fairly — the votes will be counted. Both parties have dispatched teams of lawyers to battleground states and the Justice Department has tripled the number of federal poll watchers.

The need to feel good about American democracy may also be more pronounced when troops are fighting half a world away in its name. At the height of World War II, the Writers' War Board, an unofficial group of prominent artists, apparently felt compelled to ask one of its best to sum up the meaning of the term.

"Surely the board knows what democracy is," E.B. White wrote then. "Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee."

In a year in which White's alma mater, The New Yorker, has endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in its 80-year history, the Red Sox won the Series and Bruce Springsteen is singing his songs on the stump, is it too much to hope that Franklin D. Roosevelt's delighted reaction to White's description — "Them's my sentiments exactly" — still rings true?

At least until Wednesday, or whenever the winners and losers start in on each other all over again?