WHAT American voters want most in the remaining month of the presidential primaries is less backbiting among the candidates and more debate about the issues that will face the United States and the world the next four years.
Most voters probably couldn't care less about in-house Democratic issues - runoff primaries, winner-take-more rules in state delegate apportionment, forfeiting of delegates won with union PAC money aid. This is intraparty baseball, which the general public writes off as typical Democratic strife.
Even ''party unity,'' a partisan Democratic goal now being promoted by Democratic officials, is also not uppermost among the general public's priorities.
The public has seen rather a lot of the candidates during this campaign. There have been some 15 televised debates, a record. While direct TV audience ratings have been low, the debates' secondary impact through the nightly news and the press has been high. Opinion surveys and exit polls have been more abundant than ever before, permitting a week-to-week tracking of voter moods.
A lot of what voters have seen has been negative, personal attack.
Impressions struck now by the candidates cannot be simply wiped off the slate after the convention.
Through the primaries, voters are not just weighing Walter Mondale, Gary Hart , and Jesse Jackson against one another. They are storing impressions of these men to compare with Ronald Reagan. And how would any of the Democrats represent the United States in dealings with the men of Moscow, Peking, London, Tripoli? By resorting to ad hominem attack?
Mondale's opponents view a proposed Democratic unity group, to be headed by former party chairman Robert Strauss, as a Mondale Trojan horse sent to subvert any remaining credibility in their campaigns. Whatever truth in that, it still might be a good idea, from the party's perspective, to prepare lines of compromise for the convention.
Jackson and Hart may not engage in any significant compromise before the convention. To concede too much now could mean squandering bargaining power later, for the considerable number of delegates they have won. The public probably feels it is Hart's and Jackson's prerogatives to go along with the early unity pitch or resist it.
Whatever the outcome in today's primaries in Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, and Maryland, a month remains until the California finale. Candidates, let's get away from the belittling of character and back to competing visions for your country's future.