The debates are over and the political conventions are but a memory. Early voting has begun. In less than 10 days, the presidential election that seems to have been going on for years will be over. At least the last of the votes will have been cast. The counting of them may be another matter. If the pollsters are correct, Americans are in for another very close finish in the race for president. According to an Associated Press poll published Thursday, Obama at 44 percent and McCain at 43 percent shows that the two candidates are running essentially even among likely voters.

Campaign 2008 has been one of historic proportions. For the first time since the modern era of primary elections began, one of the political parties’ candidate was not determined until they had all been completed. The primary race between Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared at times it would end up being decided at the national convention. The candidates themselves contributed to the history making. It is the first time an African-American candidate has made it on the ballot. It is also a first for a woman vice presidential candidate to be on the Republican ballot, and with John McCain, voters have an opportunity to vote for the oldest presidential nominee of a major party.

It appears that once again the public will get a refresher course in the Electoral College. If you have been wondering why the 92 million people living in Texas and three of the other four most populous states are seeing very little of the presidential candidates, it is because of the “winner-take-all” Electoral College. Under the system, all of the electoral votes of the state go to the candidate who wins the popular vote, regardless of the margin. Therefore, in states like Texas, California, New York and Illinois solidly behind one of the candidates, there is little reason to campaign there. Instead places like New Hampshire with 1.3 million people are being inundated with campaign messages and visits.

It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency and the campaign strategy of both political camps is to concentrate their focus and resources on the states that are still leaning one way or the other, and the true “toss-up” states. The goal is not to get the most votes, nor to win the most states over-all, but to garner the most electoral votes. With a month to go in the election a state-by-state electoral map showed 20 red states with 140 electoral votes solid for McCain. The solid blue states numbered 13 but represented 189 electoral votes for Obama. Four states with 40 electoral votes were leaning Republican and seven states with 71 electoral votes were leaning Democratic. Neither candidate had enough votes to win making the six truly toss-up states with their 79 votes extremely important.

The pollsters in recent days have said the race has tightened even more since the last debate with McCain gaining ground with some groups of voters. Polls are snapshots of highly fluid campaigns, and they all have a built in margin for error. The race is going to come down to how well the candidates do in the battleground states, those leaning and the half-dozen too close to call. To a large degree it is also going to come down to voter turn out.

The early voting during the first week appears to be setting records indicating that voter interest may indeed be as high as the experts have been predicting. In what many thought would be an election over the Iraq War has in recent weeks been overshadowed by the crisis in the U.S. and world economies. What has remained constant is the same central theme resonating from both political campaigns — change. Both candidates say it is needed most for the times ahead and each claim they are the best agents for it.

Early voting in most states continues through next Friday and the general election is Tuesday, Nov. 4. There are clear differences in the approach and the plans of the two candidates and their running mates. The time has come for each of us to decide which candidate and party has a better record of looking after our interests. The Electoral College may indeed determine the next president, but we will feel better by participating in the process.

Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@brownwoodbulletin.com.