One candidate is the son of the venerated independence hero Jomo Kenyatta, the country's founding president. Uhuru Kenyatta is a soft-spoken 42-year-old struggling to erase his reputation as an establishment scion and the anointed protege of President Daniel arap Moi.
The other candidate, 71-year-old Mwai Kibaki, is a career politician, practiced and outspoken. Though undeniably linked to the political establishment that has ruled Kenya for nearly a quarter-century, Kibaki assures voters that he will usher in a new era.
As Kenyans prepare to vote next Friday in elections that will give them their first new leader since Moi succeeded the elder Kenyatta in 1978, their toughest task is deciphering the difference between two men who basically hail from the same political dynasty.
"There is very little difference," said Macharia Gaitho, a political analyst at the country's largest newspaper, the Nation. "There are the same manifestoes and same ideas and same talk. And real difference is hard to see."
On the streets of the capital and in the small rural villages that dot Kenya's lush hills, the election has taken on colossal importance. Voters describe it as their first real shot at improving their country since independence from Britain in 1963 and say they hope it will make a huge difference in their daily lives.
Ruled since independence by one party -- Jomo Kenyatta's Kenya African National Union (KANU) -- Kenya has gradually evolved from one of Africa's most economically and culturally vibrant countries into one plagued by rampant corruption, a soaring AIDS rate, insecure borders with unstable neighbors and a lack of jobs for even the most educated. Here in the capital, young boys sniff glue from plastic water bottles and unemployed men run up to cars stopped in traffic and hawk used magazines, sunglasses, rabbits and monstrous television antennas. If a driver makes the slightest eye contact, a seller will sprint behind the car for blocks.
"There aren't any jobs, so we are forced to humiliate ourselves," said Jon Muindu, 24, who was selling a shaving kit, flowers and an iron sculpture of a bicycle on Moi Avenue one recent day. "We need a real election as much as we need water and bread."
A nationwide poll last week by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, an organization that promotes democracy and is closely identified with the U.S. Republican Party, predicted that Kibaki would capture 68 percent of the vote to 21 percent for Uhuru Kenyatta, the KANU candidate. There are concerns, however, that KANU will rig the election, and there have been reports of both sides buying voter registration cards. Last month, 1.5 million dead Kenyans were still registered to vote, and the local press said that some officials were printing fake voter cards.
At campaign rallies and on talk shows, Kenyatta comes across as the ideal fresh candidate: charming and earnest, a businessman with degrees in economics and political science from Amherst College in Massachusetts who seems suited to straightening out the country's corruption. His first name, Uhuru, means "freedom" in Swahili.
But Kenyatta has never held elected office at the national level. When in 1997 he ran for a parliamentary seat once held by his father, he lost. Moi appointed him to parliament and later made him a cabinet minister.
When Moi, who has served the maximum two presidential terms allowed under the 1992 constitution, surprised KANU regulars by picking Kenyatta to succeed him, he made the awkward mistake of calling him "a young man who can be guided." Since then, Kenyans have regularly called Kenyatta Moi's puppet.
So in recent weeks, Kenyatta has been traveling the country without Moi by his side, trying to run his own race and define himself as a serious contender. "I've insisted on doing my own business, that I am my own person," he said after a thinly attended rally in Sirsia. "That's the only way people can know who you are."
Nevertheless, said Nancy Khisa, a journalist with the East African Standard, "there is too much Moi in Uhuru. I like Uhuru, but the group he is with is not good."
Despite Kenyatta's alliance with old Moi cohorts such as Nicholas Biwott, a feared power broker and businessman infamous for corruption, and Julius Sunkuli, a government minister accused of raping a teenage girl, his supporters say he is sincere about his desire to lead on his own terms.
"He is so young, and I think he will offer tons of energy," said Terry Louis, 28, who works for the country's national wildlife conservation movement. "Kibaki is good too, but he's too old."
Kibaki was finance minister under Jomo Kenyatta and under Moi, then served as Moi's vice president from 1978 until 1988. Kibaki formed the Democratic Party in 1991 and he ran for president twice, losing to Moi both times. Many attributed his loss to Moi's use of government funds to buy votes.
There was rampant ethnic violence during those elections, but this time the process has been peaceful since both Uhuru and Kibaki are from the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's largest.
Kibaki, who says he was the first Kenyan to be awarded a degree in economics and public finance by the London School of Economics, has insisted that he will be the man to clean up corruption in the country. "If we could get about 200 shillings [about $3] from each driver and it really went to fixing the roads," Kibaki said, "then we could get things moving in Kenya."
Analysts said that Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) team also have liabilities. The coalition is packed with former leaders from Moi's camp, such as the recently fired vice president, George Saitoti.
"NARC has the problem of instability," said David Makali, director of the Media Institute, which is tracking the elections. "There could be a tussle for influence, and that could be their undoing. I mean, their house has too many stars. Neither the Uhuru camp or the Kibaki camp is perfect."
In Mombasa, where residents are struggling to revive their city's reputation as a tourist destination after a suicide bombing took 16 lives, including the bombers, at an Israeli-owned hotel last month, support for the candidates is divided, largely because people say they are still unsure about what the two candidates represent.
The bottom line is whether either candidate will improve daily life in Mombasa, where mounds of garbage are burned at midday because of a garbage strike. Workers say they haven't been paid in months and believe government bureaucrats have stolen their salaries.
John Chege, an engineer for the Kenyan inspection service who is examining buildings to make sure they can withstand a bomb blast, said: "I am supporting Kibaki. I just hope that whoever wins makes a bit of difference in the end."