Compelling candidates, important policy decisions, a faltering economy, and a war that shows no sign of ending, have combined to make this one of the most interesting elections in recent history. Most gratifying is the fact that people across the region are engaged as perhaps never before.

Students at several area colleges are being urged to vote and otherwise get involved. Students at Salem State, for example, held a rally a week ago Monday to urge voters to reject a proposed repeal of the Massachusetts state income tax — something that would likely reduce the amount of money flowing to public higher education.

Boston University freshman Shelagh Mollohan of Derry, N.H., is working to get her fellow students to register to vote before the presidential election.

But the 19-year-old isn't about to change her registration out of the Granite State.

"It's going to be close in New Hampshire," Mollohan told reporter Meghan Carey last week. "I hate to say that your vote doesn't matter, but in Massachusetts, it's going to be the Democrats that are going to take it."

There's a lot on the line Nov. 4 from the future direction of the country to whether marijuana possession will continue to be treated as a criminal offense in Massachusetts.

At Gordon College in Wenham, some 100 students and faculty members gathered to watch the second presidential debate. We suspect there were some interesting conversations afterward. And at Endicott College, President Richard Wylie has pledged $100,000 to programs aimed at increasing students' civic-mindedness. If 85 percent of its students are registered to vote, as School of Education Dean Sara Quay's informal poll revealed, it's clear his initiative is having the desired effect.

"I think students are becoming more citizen-like rather than being consumer-like, and it's a good thing," according to Matt Gileneau, a student at Endicott College. We couldn't agree more.

Clearly the stakes are high in Massachusetts both at the top of the ballot and with Question 1, which has the potential of reducing the state's already squeezed finances by another 40 percent.

In New Hampshire, there are competitive races for the state's two seats in the House of Representatives and a hotly contested matchup for Senate between Republican incumbent John Sununu and his challenger, former governor Jeanne Shaheen. Continued concern over the war and the faltering economy could drive turnout above 70 percent, according to Andy Smith, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

"Couple that with a close electorate and two popular candidates in the state, and that will turn turnout up," he told Carey.

And in Barack Obama and John McCain, voters have a choice between two candidates for president who are very different in terms of their experience, temperament and political philosophy.

Columnist David Shribman, who's covered and studied presidential politics for many, many years, says the contrast is stark and the outcome of this year's election could affect the country for decades to come.

Shribman has written about how "being president matters."

"It will matter, too," he noted, "whether Barack Obama or John McCain is president, despite their common chants of reform, despite their shared sense of impatience with politics as usual. The beautiful irony is that in this Age of Cynicism, no one is arguing, as George C. Wallace did in 1968, that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the major party candidates."

The volume of comment this paper has received via opinion columns, letters to the editor, and online responses, indicates that people are paying attention. Also a good thing.

So, too, is the phenomenon being noted by city and town clerks as those just reaching voting age come in to register and those who will be out of town apply for absentee ballots. People want to make sure their voices are heard next month.

Communities in New Hampshire are reporting increasing registrations. Pelham has registered an additional 71 voters since the state primary on Sept. 9, and Windham has added about 100 new voters. Londonderry has averaged five new voters a day, and Atkinson has signed up two or three a day.

Hampstead Town Clerk Patricia Curran has had so many new people register in the past two weeks than she can't guess at the number.

"We're actually trying to encourage everyone to come in and do it here because we're expecting a huge, huge voter turnout — 85 to 90 percent," she told our reporter. "It will save them from standing in line."

Important, contested races for public office coupled with an engaged and informed electorate — now that's something worth celebrating.

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