THE opera season began in Milan this week, just as the US political campaign was starting to gather.The Irish tenor Michael Kelly described opera audiences in Italy during the 1760s: The Romans assume they are the most sapient critics in the world; they are certainly the most severe ones: - they have no medium - all is delight or disgust.... The severest critics are the Abbes, who sit in the first row of the pit, each armed with a lighted wax taper in one hand, and a book of the opera in the other, and should any poor devil of a singer miss a word, they call out, "Bravo bestia! "Bravo, you beast!" Should any passage strike the audience as similar to one of another composer, they cry, "Bravo, il ladro! "Bravo, you thief!" Electoral politics, like opera, is an unnatural act. It has a season: It does not run on 12 months a year; performers and audiences need a rest from it. The public taunts performers to take risks and ridicules them should they go over the edge. Our modern Abbes are the political talk-show regulars who shout, interrupt each other and the guest, and otherwise flaunt their opinionatedness. A presidential candidate, even during full-dress TV debate, must avoid verbal tomatoes thrown by interrogators hoping to catch him in a character-revealing duck. The media majority, like the university faculty majority, are liberal; minority conservatives often have the best aim. What opera has been to Europeans, presidential politics is to Americans. Stendhal said of Italian audiences: "These are men possessed of seven devils, determined at all costs, by dint of shrieking, stamping and battering with their canes against the backs of the seats in front, to enforce the triumph of their opinion, and above all, to prove, that, come what may, none but their opinion is correct." If American politics appears to lack passion, commitment, it is because the media are our surrogate audience. Television, in particular, presents difficulties. A cool medium that rewards steadiness in the performer, it abhors boredom: The hook, in the form of the channel flicker, is wielded quickly. Bunting and parades staged for the camera, audiences seeded with claques, soundbite lines far shorter than arias, are the outward show that can either invite a sense of fun or cynicism, according to the "delight or disgust" extremes. The media, it is observed, cover too much the process, the show, of the election and its substance too little. Fair enough - if anything, too fair. A related complaint is about polls: They induce following the horse race, who's ahead in a hypothetical contest of the moment, instead of giving a sense of how candidates would actually govern. Also fair. But one defense of the polls: They are a reality check on the primary assertion of the politician, that he embodies the will of the people, which otherwise must await election day for proof. Candidates will be chosen again with the system we have. True, it is too costly. Although the verb "resonate" is in vogue among politicians, they hardly make serious matters like education, the environment, jobs creation, and health care into sonorous theater. If you've read this far, here is what I really think: The presidential election is not what it is taken to be. It is a continuum, a decision process, that will conclude next Nov. 3. It takes place less in public occurrences than in the private thought of individual citizens. Candidates - a half dozen Democrats and half as many Republicans - will seek their party's nomination in caucuses and primaries that begin with Iowa on Feb. 10 and end in North Dakota on June 9. Most of the field will have been eliminated by the middle of March. George Bush will likely avoid debating his Republican rivals. Then will come the conventions: the Democrats July 13-16 in New York, and the Republicans Aug. 17-21 in Houston. Something just might be decided on the convention floor. The campaign will start after Labor Day. We hope it will be between two sensible discussants and not another mean ad battle of innuendo about race and crime. The real campaign is about which party and which individual will lead the American democracy for another four years. Senators, most of whom may covet the White House job, will be elected to keep an eye on the president. Congressmen will be elected to check on the upper chamber and the White House. The genius here: The Americans have devised a system that, whatever the casting, lets nobody steal the show.