WASHINGTON — If it’s any consolation, this is the hard part. When it comes time for the general election campaign, voters will be faced with a clear choice on the major issues. The primaries, meanwhile, are forcing us to figure out not just who the candidates are, but who we are as well.

On what is now the issue of greatest concern, according to surveys — the flagging economy — Democrats and Republicans truly seem to live in different solar systems. All three leading Democratic contenders have set forth elaborate stimulus plans, all three have ideas for rescuing families caught in the subprime mortgage trap, and all three serve up their proposals with great heaping buckets of empathy. Message: They care.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee does the empathy part but then shifts quickly to his weird idea about replacing the income tax with a consumption tax. Mitt Romney — who promises a stimulus package soon — pandered successfully in Michigan, vowing to bring back the state’s long-lost manufacturing jobs. But when asked how exactly he intends to perform this incredible feat, Romney went all deus ex machina: He said he would spend billions of federal dollars on energy-related research, which surely will invent all kinds of wondrous new technologies, which then will swoop in to save the day. Romney was asked in a National Public Radio interview Wednesday what he would cut to come up with the money for his research project — he’s supposed to be a fiscal conservative, remember — and he named federal job-training programs, which he said were wasteful and inefficient.

Aside from Ron Paul — who, I believe, wants all financial transactions to be conducted in pieces of eight — the rest of the Republican field tends to answer questions about the economy by quoting Adam Smith. Apparently, they’re too busy campaigning to have noticed that stock markets around the world are in turmoil, or that the White House and the Federal Reserve are at Threat Level Orange.

On Iraq, the difference is even more stark. It’s true that Hillary Clinton and John Edwards voted to authorize the war and that Barack Obama opposed it from the start, though he wasn’t in a position to do anything about it. And it’s true that Edwards has apologized for his vote and Clinton hasn’t. But they all promise, basically, the same policy going forward: Bring the troops home.

The Republicans have a different idea. John McCain has spoken of keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for 100 years, and his rivals for the nomination (except Paul, who of course won’t get it) show little more urgency. No matter which candidates are nominated, voters who care deeply about Iraq will be presented with two clear alternatives — get out or stay in.

If Clinton or Obama wins the nomination, I suppose some voters will pretend to agonize over whether “we are ready” to elect the first woman or the first African-American president. Please spare us. Either outcome would be historic, but nobody has to puzzle through dense position papers before deciding whether to vote on the basis of race or gender. People will pull the lever or not, and then justify their decisions retroactively.

The really agonizing choices are the ones being made now in both parties.

Is the Republican coalition assembled by Ronald Reagan and reunited by Bush still viable now that so many independents have drifted away? If not, then where lies the party’s true soul? In the hawkishness of McCain, or perhaps Rudy Giuliani? In Romney’s big-business boosterism? In Mike Huckabee’s new admixture of social conservatism and economic populism?

Three primary contests have given three different answers.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, knows exactly what it stands for. Obama, Clinton and Edwards are hardly fire-breathing radicals. Their positions on domestic issues are all comfortably in the Democratic mainstream. Internationally, all would seek to repair the damage to America’s standing that Bush has done; none is likely to look for wars to start, but none is going to take Dennis Kucinich’s recommendation to renounce war-making for all time.

What Democratic primary voters have to decide, as they cast their ballots, is not just how they view the candidates but how they view the moment.

After suffering through the infuriating Bush years, are Democrats ready to fight, as Edwards believes? Are they nostalgic for the Clinton era, which had its pluses and minuses but at least holds no mystery? Or are they ready to follow Obama on a promising new path, trusting that he knows the way?

Not easy.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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