Washington — The biggest issue dominating this campaign is one that lies somewhat beneath the surface. Most pundits write that foreign affairs is occupying the attention of the public now and that, quite likely, economic and energy problems will very soon take over as the number one issue.
But the fact is that the post-Watergate period is not over. People still are mainly concerned -- above everything else -- about how their representatives in government, at every level, are conducting themselves.
The latest scandal -- the FBI "sting" oper" ation that involved several members of Congress -- has only served to keep alive public suspicions about government leaders.
Before that there was the Korean-bribery- of-congressmen charges (Koreagate), the charges of banking impropriety lodged against Lance, the questions raised about Talmadge, and the furor over the personal conduct of Mills, Hays, and Diggs, among others.
The drug-related charges that involved Bourne and now Jordan have also contributed to voters' feeling that too many public figures aren't conducting themselves personally in the manner which is expected of them.
The "moral issue" is, indeed, the all-important one in this current political campaign, particularly when one views its farreaching aspects:
One must remember that the public often makes a moral judgment on its leaders in terms of how they conduct foreign affairs.
Thus, much of the strong anti-Soviet feeling in this country comes from those who are making a moral judgment about the Soviet Government. That is obvious. Yet it seems worth noting in this context -- as a reminder that public judgments are often based on what is perceived to be "right" and "wrong" in a moral sense.
For example, the passionate support for the Israeli position among many American Jews is obviously based on a moral-religious as well as ethnic point of view.
Also, many voters are making moral or ethical judgments when they line up one way or another behind a wide array of domestic issues -- conservation, a national health program, abortion, drug laws, homosexual rights, women's rights, the roles of the CIA and FBI, and so on.
In its broadest sense, the "moral issue" touches most questions. But the way government leaders conduct themselves personally is the aspect of this issue that stands out on its own as paramount. And it is clear that it is playing a decisive role in this campaign. For example:
1. The basic reason that Kennedy is losing out to Carter is that people who otherwise would vote for the Massachusetts Senator have made a negative judgment on his personaly morality.
Voters question whether Kennedy is telling the truth about what happened at Chappaquiddick. And they have a number of other questions (fair or unfair) about the way he conducts his personal life.
2. Connally like Kennedy is a very attractive personality, someone who might well be expected to be a winner. But he has dropped out of the race, and the reason is that the public, again fairly or unfairly, questions his character.
Voters still hold a vivid memory of Connally's involvement in milk-fund charges -- while forgetting, it seems, that the Texan was acquitted.
But more than anything else the Republican rank and file somehow concluded that Connally was an opportunistic wheeler-dealer simply because he had suddenly changed parties a few years ago.
3. On the other hand, the reason Ronald Reagan is prospering so much is that those who support him, the GOP conservatives, see a kind of political purity in their candidate.
True, these Reaganites talk about saving money, cutting back on government, etc.But they see these issues in moral terms -- as positions that are based on the rights of the individual, under God.
4. Jimmy Carter, too, gains much from a public perception that he is a "good man," that he is genuinely religious and prayerful and tries to do what is right.
And up to now the charges of impropriety lodged against some of the President's aides have not rubbed off on Mr. Carter.
So it is that the "moral issue" has gained the ascendancy in this campaign -- even though very few observers have given it the attention it deserves.