IN South Bend, Indiana, as the American presidential campaign careers to its conclusion, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney confront a choice. Is there more potential for victory in appealing to the most loyal Democrats and Republicans -- the so-called bases of the two parties -- or is success more possible by trying to capture the support of independents, the swing voters who often decide US elections?
The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll reveals that among registered voters, 36pc identify themselves as independent, with 34pc Democratic and 25pc Republican. Since January, these numbers have fluctuated modestly, but at least a third of the people surveyed 10 different times count themselves as independent.
This slice of the electorate deserves attention not only for its size, but also for its place in American politics today. At a time of partisanship on steroids and pronounced polarisation, the independent, who's usually centrist or moderate, is faced with a decision made more difficult by relentless emphasis on the significance of either party's base -- with liberals tilting the Democrats and conservatives slanting Republicans. Independents often feel caught in a cross-fire of competing positions.
All the pulling to the left and to the right -- a politics played out with increasing frequency at the extremes -- means an Obama or a Romney needs to adapt to this political environment to survive. Yet a long-time observer of both candidates and the larger landscape wonders whether current realities have forced them to become politicians they really aren't.
Obama first gained widespread attention in 2004 with his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, when he said: ". . . there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America." He went on to argue that it was neither fair nor accurate to divide the nation into "red" (Republican) and "blue" (Democratic) states.
After these remarks and his election to the Senate the same year, he presented himself as a fresh, new face and voice -- the post-partisan, post-racial American. In his pre-2008 campaign book, 'The Audacity of Hope', he reiterated his belief that "any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we're in".
The Obama of 2004 through 2008 stands in stark contrast to the one during his first White House term. A prime concern for future historians of this period will be: Was Obama sincere in articulating his message of reduced partisanship in seeking the presidency, and did he reach out enough to Republicans in governing? Whatever the answer might be, the facts of Washington life are that stalemate and gridlock continue to make long-term problems impossible to resolve.
Romney, too, comes to us today as a figure different from how he presented himself in the past. As the Republican governor of Massachusetts (from 2003 until 2007), he worked closely with a Democratic legislature and, among other accomplishments, produced a health-care programme for Bay State citizens. He also became known as a moderate in his approach to gun control, climate change and other issues.
Yet, as soon as he set his sights on the Republican presidential nomination for 2008, this Romney disappeared. It was as though he took a famous statement of 19th-century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and made it his creed.
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," Emerson (also from Massachusetts) asserted, "adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
No little statesman he, Romney of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, reflects virtually no consistency with his time as governor.
Interestingly, after the first presidential debate on October 3, analysts dilated on the Republican candidate's deliberate effort to position himself nearer the political centre and away from Tea Party.
In their not-too-distant pasts, both Obama and Romney have occupied territory independents call home.
With so much at stake and polls indicating no clear leader, will they now try to plant themselves in that space during the final days of the campaign to attract the swing voters? Or will each standard bearer dig ever more deeply into their partisan bases to secure victory?
But after November 6 the much more important concern will be how Obama or Romney approaches the presidency.
In other words, will either figure arrive (to paraphrase W.B. Yeats) at a centre that can, indeed, hold to accomplish the necessary work these times demand?
Robert Schmuhl is Professor of American Studies at Notre Dame