Every day last week, Minnesotans by the thousands used the secretary of state's Web-based service to learn where the party of their choice would caucus in their neighborhood Tuesday night.

That's good news. It signals that Minnesotans have caught on to the fact that this year is different. This year, they can truly help select the presidential candidate of the party of their choice.

The Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor parties -- and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie -- deserve thanks from every democracy-loving Minnesotan for setting aside the caucus calendar spelled out in state statutes. They relied on the apparent permission granted by judicial case law to move Minnesota's caucuses from March to Feb. 5.

That made this state part of Super Tuesday, when voters in 24 states will take part in what might be considered a national presidential primary. It's shaping up as a potentially transformative moment in this nation's history. Minnesotans shouldn't miss it.

This newspaper will not declare its preference for president until October, after the intraparty contests are settled and the interparty contest is well underway.

But it's not too early to voice admiration for much of what has unfolded to date in the presidential sweepstakes. Early-state voters have narrowed both the GOP and Democratic fields to produce two lively contests that bode well for positive change in Washington.

On the Republican side, the comeback of John McCain signals that many GOP voters have grown weary of the wedge issues that George W. Bush and Karl Rove employed for divide-and-conquer politics.

McCain's reasonable views on immigration and his lack of zealotry on social issues may still hurt him, as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee come at him from the right. But the Arizona senator's appeal seems to transcend those hot buttons, drawing instead from more enduring American notions of what constitutes character and leadership.

For Minnesotans, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's association with McCain adds to the stakes of the GOP contest. A national role for Pawlenty, long the stuff of political gossip, will begin to seem a realistic possibility if McCain wins on Tuesday.

The winnowing of the Democratic field to the history-making twosome of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has produced riveting and revealing political theater. Both remaining Democrats offer this nation a welcome departure from both the policies of the last eight years, and the unwritten rule that only a white male can contend for the presidency.

Obama's rapid rise is a tribute to the breadth of his appeal and a sign of the nation's longing for inspiration. His eloquent call for Americans to be more active participants in solving their shared problems is reminiscent of the words of John F. Kennedy. But it also sounds fresh, and it resonates across generational and ideological lines.

Clinton can inspire, too, when she comes across as a strong, intelligent and independent leader. Unfortunately, the involvement of her evidently irrepressible husband in her campaign in recent weeks has dented her image of independence. A chastened Bill Clinton stayed out of the headlines in the last few days. But the perception may have already taken root that a vote for Hillary is a vote for a third term for Bill.

At Thursday night's debate, both Democratic candidates said they want a forward-looking campaign. That should be every candidate's vow. In South Carolina, the Democratic debate demonstrated anew what voters saw in 2004: The passions of the 1960s resurface easily, and distract mightily from the conversation about the future that America needs now.

This presidential campaign should help Americans see national security in the 21st century as something much broader than the foiling of Islamic terrorists. It should deepen their understanding of the challenges posed by an aging population, an ascendant China, a warming planet and an economy whose rewards are concentrated in too few hands. An election that engages Americans on those issues would be worthy of the world's strongest democracy, and would help keep America strong.