After more than a year of campaigning, contentious primaries, two conventions, a couple of hurricanes, Russia’s invasion of the Republic of Georgia and a historic financial meltdown and subsequent federal bailout, I’m convinced more than ever that when people go into that voting booth and punch that ballot or touch that screen, they will be basing their decision on their personal pet wedge issue or the candidate they like the most.

I’ve often said Americans pick their presidents based on which candidate they prefer to see in their living rooms for the next four to eight years. This year is no different. Apart from some social-wedge issues, there are not many substantial differences in the candidates, as they are in the home stretch and playing this game of high stakes politics exceptionally safe.

The mainstream news and blogosphere are completely focused/borderline obsessed with the personality and image of the candidates, particularly on the Republican ticket.

Sen. Obama is a change agent, a breath of fresh air, someone who inspires. Sen. Biden is the “senior statesman.”

Sen. McCain is back to being maverick in chief and has successfully shed the nickname for his campaign mobile, “Double Talk Express.” He has his trusty mini-maverick in Sarah Palin. Together, they will transform Washington. It all seems a bit like the front page of an unsuccessful comic book series.

But this week’s financial crisis is anything but comical. I had hoped the reaction of the candidates might provide voters with some substance upon which to base that decision they will be making the first Tuesday of November. No such luck. The candidates reacted the same to the crisis (color me surprised), on the trail initially by saying we aren’t going to reward fat cat Wall Street and sell out Main Street.

McCain additionally called for the head of the SEC. But after he got thumped in the Wall Street Journal for not knowing what he was talking about and told the SEC head was not responsible, the senator seems to have put his sword back in its sheath and instead offered to create a new government entity: the Mortgage and Financial Institutions Trust. The MFI will hand out liquidity loans to troubled financial institutions and advise them. Great, so instead of massive bailouts, McCain suggests we create a government entity for baby bailouts in the future.

Most of the campaign trail talk, however, is focused on the “seriousness” of the crisis and how Wall Street, ah, I mean, the economy must be saved. Guess who is going to save it? That’s right, you and me, the ones who did not speculate, the ones who did not buy homes beyond our means, the ones who will be paying between $4,000 and $7,000 dollars each, depending on how you do the math.

Between the Iraq war and now the bailout, the U.S. taxpayer will add almost $2 trillion in unexpected expenses. Remember, Iraq was supposed to have paid for itself after an initial investment of $50 billion. Now it’s somewhere between $700 billion and $3 trillion, depending on whose numbers you believe.

I don’t argue that something needs to be done to address the economic meltdown, but what worries me is that not only are the candidates like scared children running from the boogie man on this one, but the so-called deal is being penned in secrecy, which usually means the rich get richer and the rest get a bill.

I’m hoping against hope that the pending debates will illuminate some differences between the candidates and that the American people get real transparency before we have to shell out more money from our wallets.

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