One paints the future in bold colors, the other chisels in the stone of political pragmatism.
But I'm starting to wonder whether the only way the Democrats will achieve an artful finish to the 2016 campaign is if Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton find a way to work together.
Say it's too early for that kind of navel-gazing. Maybe so. The candidates are still brushing off the dust from crisscrossing the state and firing up the partisans ahead of the Nevada caucus.
But could anyone have predicted Sanders' progressive appeal and popularity even a few months ago?
From the look of a recent poll surveying the Democratic presidential race, the political playing field has shifted dramatically since December in Nevada. It's hard to believe that Sanders has gained so much ground on Clinton, but a TargetPoint survey of more than 1,200 potential caucus goers taken from Feb. 8-10 calls the race a dead heat with approximately 10 percent undecided. A December poll had Clinton enjoying a 23-point advantage despite running a campaign that has at times seemed mechanical and almost plodding next to Sanders.
That survey showing the race so competitive may be flawed, but it's also one of the few polls taken in recent months — and according to Huffingtonpost.com one of just a half dozen collected in a year.
We'll find out soon enough whether the polls were accurate, but it really doesn't matter. The prognostication fades to inconsequence in the face of what appears to be a larger emerging reality: Clinton and Sanders may just need each other for the Democrats to win in November. Take a little time to get a feel for the genuine energy being exuded by Sanders' supporters, and you may find yourself wondering how Clinton might ever hope to match such enthusiasm.
When you listen to the young idealists who make up a large portion of Sanders' surging campaign, you may conclude, as I have, that they won't settle for anything less than a general election that includes their man Bernie somewhere on the ticket. Sanders has fired up the progressive Democratic base in a way that eludes Clinton in 2016 as it did in 2008 against Barrack Obama. She's even struggled to win over young women.
Clinton continues to pound out a pretty traditional campaign that has put its arms around the Democrats' perennial support network that includes minorities and organized labor. She'll need genuine enthusiasm from union rank-and-file volunteers — many of whom have struggled mightily in recent years as the state has slowly pulled out of recession — to ensure victory in the Nevada caucus.
Sanders, meanwhile, has gone from novelty act to the main event with his vilification of the privileged class, Wall Street and the banking mob. Along the way, he's also shined a harsh light on Clinton's coziness with the too-big-to-fail crowd.
Of course, Sanders' army of true believers will bellow that, if anything, it's their man who should own top billing. They too easily forget that Sanders' unapologetic Democratic socialism fires up the base, but isn't likely to sell in a general election.
Although she may be having sleepless nights in Nevada in the days leading up to the caucus, Clinton's long-range problem isn't winning the state or even, barring a collapse of her machine, the nomination. It's getting all those progressives giddy over Bernie to get off the couch in November and make her the nation's first woman president.
While they're at it, they ought to demand their beloved Bernie become the first Jewish vice president. Now that would be something to see.
It would be a pair of proud firsts.
Laugh if you wish, but it's hard to imagine Clinton winning the White House in November without the energetic support of millions of Democrats who find themselves feeling the Bern.
Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at email@example.com or call 702-383-0295.