When a sales position opened up at InPro, where a gardener tends to the petunias outside the sprawling plant in a suburban industrial park, the college graduate applied for and got the job. He now earns $34,000, plus commission, which, if all goes well, should put him in the neighborhood of at least $45,000-$55,000 in his first year.

His wife, Kristin, 36, who met Gibbs when both were students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, has also been feeling flush. A manager at J.C. Penney who designs the floor plans and signage for merchandise, she has doubled her salary in the past seven years and is making more than $50,000.

"Now we have more money than we need," Michael says, sitting on the deck of his three-bedroom home in suburban Muskego while their 2- and 6-year-old sons watch TV in Scooby-Doo pajamas. "We're very blessed."

The Gibbses share some of their good fortune, giving 8 percent of their gross income to the nondenominational Christian church they helped build in their community and to other charities.

In contrast to the Konecnys, Michael and Kristin Gibbs credit Bush for much of their success. Without the administration's tax breaks to small businesses - which reduced rates for companies that pay taxes at the individual income rate - Michael's new employer would not be thriving as it is and would not have been able to hire Gibbs and 17 other employees in the past nine months, he says.

What's more, Michael figures his family saved about $1,600 on its taxes in the past few years, thanks to Bush's two rounds of tax cuts. The savings helped them buy a new computer and put hardwood floors in their kitchen and foyer.

"We put money back in the economy, put people to work, bought something to help us educate our kids and added value to our house," Michael says. "Now we're looking to put in granite countertops when I get my first big commission check from InPro. We're living very nicely and comfortably."

The presidential election will be decided around kitchen tables across the country, where families like these two - the Gibbses, who say they are better off "by far" than they were four years ago, and the Konecnys, who say they are not - take measure of their lives.

Unlike the classic liberal/conservative split in the electorate, most evident on cultural issues, the economic debate cuts along a slightly murkier axis - with voters often willing to cross over to the other side if they feel their own financial well-being is in peril but generally sticking with their party and their candidate as long as they perceive the economy in general is on an upswing.

The economy has been improving in the past year - about 1.7 million jobs were added after big job losses during the previous three years, reducing the net loss of jobs during the Bush presidency to about 900,000.

But the massive dislocation of workers in the very parts of the country where the election will be won or lost - the battleground states of the Midwest - has scrambled the political equation, weakening the president's ability to capitalize on economic progress and offering John Kerry an opening.

In Wisconsin, as well as Michigan, Missouri and Ohio, the combination of increased productivity and globalization has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs since Bush took office. Even in Wisconsin, among the industrial states where the past year's recovery has been the strongest, 52,500 factory jobs have been lost since January 2001.

These were the jobs that for decades enabled those with a high school diploma, or less, to live securely and proudly and support families in middle-class style, jobs that workers stayed in for 40 years, jobs that employees saw their fathers and even grandfathers retire from.

The region, and the nation, has struggled to replace those jobs and retrain workers for a post-industrial age. But the transition has accentuated one of the clearest fault lines in the new economy and led to a heightened sense of winners and losers. College graduates like Michael Gibbs are finding new and better opportunities, while others, like Doug Konecny - one of the more than 70 percent of adults without a four-year degree - are finding little to match previous livelihoods.

The changing economic landscape has left a vast middle class highly polarized around issues of taxes, health care, trade and the role of government.

Both presidential candidates, who have made numerous trips to Wisconsin, which voted narrowly for Al Gore in 2000, have seized upon the economic vagaries of the industrial Midwest to appeal to voters' concerns about jobs and wages, globalization, and their futures.

Kerry has used the frequent plant closings and substantial job loss in the state to slam Bush on his economic policies, calling the president's record on job creation "the worst record since Herbert Hoover."

The Democrat argues that most of the jobs created in the past year are low-paying, such as those in leisure and hospitality. And he finds surefire applause lines in his vows to cut taxes for businesses that create jobs in the United States, end tax breaks for businesses that move jobs overseas and refund payroll taxes for companies that hire new employees.

Bush, for his part, has had a more difficult task portraying the economic outlook as a sunny one, especially in regions like this, where plants sit vacant and retraining centers are full. "The economy has improved, but it's still in catch-up mode, particularly in the industrial Midwest," says Diane C. Swonk, chief economist for Bank One in Chicago. "That's a challenge for an incumbent."

But making the case that the loss of jobs is part of a decades-long trend toward globalization and greater efficiency of factories, Bush has found success stories like InPro Corp., where entrepreneurs have benefited from his tax policies and expanded their businesses on his watch.