Conventional wisdom holds that Americans grow weary of long political campaigns. But while the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has seemed interminable this time around, the main event will last barely five months, beginning now.

That's not an unreasonable length. In fact, this contest could be good for America.

John McCain may not welcome too many comparisons with Barry Goldwater, considering how Goldwater fared in 1964. But his suggestion that he and Barack Obama hold a series of joint town-hall meetings sounds a lot like what Goldwater wanted to do with John F. Kennedy before Kennedy's assassination changed the political landscape. We're encouraged that the Obama camp is open to the idea, even if they want to haggle over the format.

On many issues, McCain and Obama hold starkly different views, and it is important for Americans to understand the differences and the reasonings.

Perhaps the issue with the highest profile is the war in Iraq. McCain would keep American forces there until victory is achieved. Obama wants to withdraw them, beginning immediately and ending by 2010 when a small residual force would remain. But other issues provide equally stark contrasts. For instance, they differ sharply on the question of whether to negotiate with enemies, particularly Iran.

McCain supports incentives for nuclear power and would grant a summertime gas-tax holiday. Obama wants incentives for wind and solar energy. McCain would make the Bush tax cuts permanent, while Obama would extend them only for households that earn less than $250,000. Obama wants to change the way the No Child Left Behind law measures school progress. McCain supports the traditionally conservative idea (except in Utah) of giving parents vouchers or tax credits with which to choose their own schools.

They divide strongly on social issues. McCain opposes abortion on demand, while Obama supports it. McCain wants schools to teach abstinence-only in sex education classes, while Obama would stress birth control and abstinence equally. Obama supports civil unions for gay couples and, although he personally opposes gay marriage, wants states to decide the issue and to recognize each other's decisions. McCain opposes both civil unions and gay marriage, and while he believes it is a state's rights issue, he wouldn't force one state to recognize another state's gay marriages.

The list goes on. This is a real race with real issues. Perhaps a series of town-hall meetings would remove the emphasis on negative advertising, cheap slogans and misleading rumors that have dominated recent presidential campaigns. At least it would allow for a higher tone, and it would give American voters a clearer picture as they head to the polls in November.