As the debates get under way

Attend enough campaign rallies and listen to enough of those my-opponent-stinks commercials and you could come away convinced that the country is hopelessly divided and fearful. It's the moochers vs. the 1 percent, the patriots vs. the peaceniks, "real" Americans vs. "other" Americans. Unless our candidate wins, we're doomed.

We don't buy it. This electoral season, the first presidential race since the Citizens United decision, has produced more divisive campaign ads than ever before, and the frustratingly weak economy has raised the anxiety level over the nation's future.

But candidates and the electorate seem to agree on urgent priorities -- the what, if not the how.

The national debt is out of control and must be fixed. The recovery has been weak, more and better jobs are desperately needed. The immigration system is broken and must be reformed. Our schools need help. Whoever wins will have to make tough decisions over how to repair Medicare and Social Security.

Committed ideologues aside, most voters aren't looking for a conservative or liberal approach to these issues. They want fair and workable solutions. That's what the campaign ought to be about.

At this stage, some things are fairly clear.

* Under Republican Mitt Romney, there would likely be fewer taxes and less spending than in a second Obama term.

* Romney would try to repeal most of Obama's Affordable Care Act, re-opening a debate the Supreme Court had settled.

* The president wants a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here who meet certain criteria. Romney doesn't, although he has softened his stance on "self-deportation."

* Romney has been talking tough to adversaries abroad, but tough talk is not a policy, and Obama's own record on national security is strong. Romney's failure to visit Latin America on his world tour was disappointing.

Yet for all the differences, major questions remain. Romney rebuffs calls for a "balanced" approach to the budget -- raising revenue and reducing spending. But his detailed, 59-point economic plan dodges the tough questions on how to do it.

President Obama, for his part, has not made clear how he would tackle Medicare and Social Security to make these programs more sustainable.

As the presidential debates begin tonight, undecided voters should be looking for answers on these and other key questions.

Romney has been so vague on specifics that it's hard to know what he really believes. Obama still has to show exactly how he would change his approach to make a second term -- and his relations with Congress -- better than his first term. At this point, neither candidate has this election in the bag.

-- The Miami Herald