Now that the state primary is over, it's time to focus on the big picture looming in November. And with the party differences and philosophies as wide as they are, the stakes couldn't be higher.

Hanging in the balance is simply the future course of the nation.

For the next six months, hot button issues like the economy, illegal immigration, a $15.6 trillion budget deficit, religious freedom and the survival of our massive entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security will be debated and dissected by the candidates.

The biggest challenge for President Obama is to convince people that the recession, as bad as it was and still is, could have been much worse had he not acted to right the ship. We will be hearing Mitt Romney challenge that assertion, claiming that people are still suffering and that Obama's economic policies, which included a massive $787 billion economic stimulus, have been a complete failure and still have us on an economic road to oblivion. After paying to put gas in the car, shopping for groceries to put food on the table, and paying on the mortgage and student loans, Romney will be asking voters to check to see how much money is left in their wallets or checkbooks.

The weak housing market continues to be a drag on any hope for economic recovery. It was announced Tuesday that the sales of new homes fell last month by the largest amount in more than a year. Sales of new homes stand at just about half the pace (about 700,000-a-year) that analysts see as evidence of a healthy market.

The equity of home ownership, once the American dream, has also suffered in this economic downturn. It's disconcerting to know that the value of many of our homes continued to decline in most major markets for the sixth straight month.

Even religious freedom issues will be a part of this presidential campaign. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently called for two weeks of public protests against President Obama's policies in order to end the administration's contraception mandate.

Heading into November's general election, the challenge for voters, especially those crucial independents and undecideds, will be to separate the facts from the rhetoric. Veteran voters are used to hearing false promises from smooth-talking politicians.

The novice voter shouldn't be influenced by candidates who make rehearsed talking points at staged party events in front of hand-picked partisan loyalists. We can better learn how the candidates handle pressure and think on their feet during debates.

One of the biggest Democratic pitchmen during Bill Clinton's two successful runs for the White House was strategist James Carville, who coined the phrase "It's the economy, stupid" during the 1992 campaign. It's ironic that 20 years later, the Republicans will be using that same theme in their attempt to make Barack Obama a one-term president.

Recently, however, we heard the phrase used with a slightly different twist. Heading into what promises to be a very close presidential election this fall, Republicans are saying that yes, it IS the economy, and the voters ARE NOT stupid in recognizing that fact!

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com [1]