The three presidential debates were an effective way of experiencing George W. Bush and Al Gore more as people than packaged candidates, and to get a glimpse of them as thinkers - away from the TV ads and stump speeches.
But the debates also distilled down the central theme of this election to a question of the federal role in the daily life of Americans.
Now, in this last lap before the Nov. 7 vote, the two should assiduously clarify their positions on this question - not only about programs from Washington, but the role of federal courts.
The finer points of their debate on Social Security, Medicare, and education need more explanation to sort out differences. Having outside special-interest groups run an avalanche of "issue ads" on television may just befuddle many voters.
Some $224 million was spent on issue ads between March and August this year (according to an Annenberg Center on Public Policy study). It's perhaps wishful thinking, but both campaigns should call a halt to ads that distort the other side's positions.
At the same time, many voters have grasped the details but want the candidates to better articulate their broader visions. The debates largely failed in that regard. They focused on policy and character differences.
Talking more about the question of the government's role will force the candidates, to some degree, to define America for the next decade.
Voters need help in sorting out the question of when and how government should act, and at what level: federal, state, or local - or in tandem with faith groups? How much are individuals responsible for themselves?
From the spring primaries to the summer conventions to the fall debates, this democracy has come down to this: choosing a vision.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society