As the presidential campaign gears up for debates between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale (Oct. 7 and 21) and between George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro (Oct. 11), a question asked by Mr. Mondale during the primaries - ''Where's the beef?'' - will be much on the public's mind.
For both parties, the ''beef'' of the campaign consists of major statements on such issues as defense, the economy, and foreign policy. Long before these issues generate policy statements or congressional bills, however, they are extensively researched and analyzed by the nation's public-policy research organizations - the so-called ''think tanks.'' The men and women who populate these organizations are profoundly influential among government policymakers and frequently quoted in the news media. But they and their institutions are little known to the public.
In a series beginning today, the Monitor examines the role of the nation's public-policy think tanks. Subsequent articles will profile four of the most prominent such organizations - the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. See Page 19.