WASHINGTON — The contours of the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination are set, and it is not a battle about “issues.” Advisers to the major contenders largely see things this way, and Democratic voters are in a quandary about what to do.

The norms of high-minded commentary suggest that you are never to say the issues are not the issue. But among the top Democratic candidates, the confrontations they are staging around policy questions are designed to use their rather small differences to highlight larger contrasts in experience, temperament and character.

For example, all support some sort of universal health coverage. Yet Barack Obama, unlike John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, would not mandate that everyone buy insurance. Edwards and Clinton are right about the mandate, but most voters will focus on which candidate is likely to get any kind of universal health care passed.

Obama and Clinton have also been skirmishing on Social Security. Obama would lift the cap on the payroll tax, which would increase the burden on those with higher incomes. Clinton has criticized this and wants a bipartisan commission to take responsibility for fixing the program.

But this is a difference about strategy, not substance. Social Security is not even close to being among the most burning issues the country faces, and whatever they say, all the Democrats will almost certainly raise Social Security taxes on better-off taxpayers. It’s a matter of how and when.

On foreign policy, Obama opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, Edwards has cast himself as a born-again anti-warrior, and Clinton has sounded steadily more anti-war as the campaign has progressed. More generally, Obama has stressed the value of negotiation, while Clinton looks more — choose your word — tough-minded, hawkish, realistic. Little noticed during last week’s debate is that only Clinton and Chris Dodd said plainly that there were times when national security would take precedence over human rights concerns.

But candidates — remember Richard Nixon’s trip to China or George W. Bush’s promise of a “humble” foreign policy — are notorious for surprising voters once in office. All the Democrats would break from Bush. How much? We can’t really know.

Yes, Joe Biden continues to impress on foreign policy in the debates and Bill Richardson could pick up votes on the left as the strongest advocate for withdrawal from Iraq. Dodd has an opening on Iraq too. But where Obama, Clinton and Edwards are concerned, it’s doubtful that anyone but a member of the Council on Foreign Relations will vote on the basis of a careful parsing of the candidates’ views.

My conversations over the weekend with lieutenants in the three campaigns suggest that they know this and see the choice today as defined in almost exactly the same way as it was at the beginning of the year.

Clinton’s strongest asset is that Democrats are certain that she will know her way around the White House, be toughness personified in confronting Republicans, will rarely make a mistake — in brief, that she can survive walks through minefields.

But many Democrats like the idealism that emanates from Obama, appreciate the rupture with the Clinton-Bush past he represents, and see his very persona and background as sending a powerful signal of change.

It’s hard for Edwards to break into the competition between these two big narratives, and that’s why he has slipped in Iowa, the crucial state for him. Many Democrats love Edwards’ populism and the fury he conveys over the status quo. His attacks on Clinton have won him attention. But Edwards will have to find ways of challenging Obama for the votes of those who have doubts about the former first lady.

The drama of this contest arises from the fact that Democrats like all three of these candidates. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News national survey, Clinton was rated favorably by 78 percent of Democrats, Obama by 69 percent and Edwards by 62 percent.

Yet many Democrats share the concerns these candidates raise about each other, wishing that Clinton was not so burdened by history and that Obama was more battle-tested.

And so it is that Democrats who once struggled over ideology will be making a much more personal choice in 2008. As the candidates shadowbox over issues, Democratic voters know in their bones that position papers will shed little light on the one question they really care about: Who has the best chance of ending, and then transcending, the Bush era?

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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