WASHINGTON -- So much for shaded policy disagreements. Starker choices loom for voters -- on abortion, taxes, Social Security and more -- now that Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush are preparing to go head to head for the presidency.
Even when the rhetoric of both candidates seems to match, policy experts see contrasts that are likely to be magnified and be of practical consequence for the nation's future, not to mention pocketbooks.
''This is in some ways as profound an ideological difference as there has been since Reagan and Carter in 1980 -- if you dig into it,'' said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Digging is required because the vice president, a self-styled pragmatic ''reinventer'' of government, and the Texas governor, a ''compassionate conservative,'' can sound alike when they are not speaking to the ideological wings of their parties.
On health care, for one issue, Gore proposes changes that are modest by comparison with those of his vanquished Democratic rival and modest, too, alongside the grand vision of universal health care abandoned by the administration he serves.
But his plan is much more ambitious and expensive than anything Bush has put on the table.
For his part, Bush proposes across-the-board tax cuts larger even than the congressional Republican package that Democrats attacked as too costly last year. Gore offers selective tax relief here and there.
As well, Bush stands for partial privatization of Social Security, proposes expanded medical savings accounts and spells out a way for parents whose kids are in failing schools to use federal money for private education -- ideas roundly opposed by the vice president.
Those ideas have simmered in Congress for a decade but only now are emerging with force in a presidential campaign. On the Republican side, Franc argues, that sets the governor apart from Bob Dole campaign in 1996 and President Bush in 1992.
''A lot of conservative thinking that might have been trendy or outside the envelope in the early '90s is now much more widely accepted,'' he said Thursday.
Because the ground has shifted, ''I see Bush as being to the right of Dole, to the right of his dad.''
Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said the differences between Gore and Bush are more pronounced than might have been expected from two men who share a moderate impulse.
From contends that Bush built his centrist message ''on the cheap,'' without the painstaking and often painful policy work that helped Bill Clinton move his party beyond its old orthodoxy in 1992. That left Bush ill-equipped to stay in the center when the primaries got rough, he said.
''Clinton built his own philosophical base in the party that he could fall back on when he got in trouble,'' From said. ''Because Bush didn't do that, he had to fall back on the people who were the establishment.''
As a result, he said, Gore can draw vivid differences with Bush on some of the social and economic issues where they might otherwise have been closer.
When Gore's opponent was Bill Bradley and Bush's main rival was John McCain, policy differences tended to be minor or else overshadowed by debate over character, veracity, tactics and -- for Republicans -- religion.
Despite all the heat about abortion, Bush and McCain espoused similar positions on one side of the issue; Gore and Bradley did the same on the other.
Now the choice is between a Democrat who supports the full range of abortion rights and a Republican who says abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the pregnant woman.
Neither has committed explicitly to nominating only Supreme Court justice who share their abortion views.
But Bush's formulaic comment that he would nominate ''strict constructionists'' is taken by abortion foes as a wink in their direction.
And Gore's assertion in the context of judicial nominations that he would ''protect a woman's right to choose'' is taken by abortion-rights advocates as an unmistakable nod to them.
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