With three weeks to go before the presidential balloting, no single issue has emerged to polarize, to "split," to rally sides among the electorate. Campaign style -- principally President Carter's hang-tough rhetorical slashing at his opponent -- has wrested attention from issues.

Not even the economy -- with past political lore dictating that "bread and butter issues" are decisive, and the current American economy caught in the crosswinds of inflation and recession -- has been able to command center stage for more than a day or two.

Even there both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan have hedged in similar turf with proposals for tax cuts, steel and auto industry rescues, big-city bail-outs , and pledges to keep social security secure.

"This is not an aroused public," says pollster Burns Roper, whose latest survey puts Messrs. Carter and Reagan a scant one point apart. Indeed, Roper and other surveys show the race almost exactly where it was in June, after the primaries and before the "artificial upward fluffs" caused by the party conventions.

The 1980 election seems to be governed more by negative feelings toward the candidates than by positive cocerns for a national agenda.

In 1976, after the sorry Watergate saga, both major candidates stressed moral rectitude as reasons to vote for them. Answering an August 1976 Roper question, 44 percent of the public said they would be voting for "the better of two good candidates," and 26 percent said they would be voting against the worst of two poor candidates.

In 1980, 45 percent say they are voting against the worst of two poor choices , only 33 percent for the better of two good ones.

Oddly, although "racism and hate," "war and peace," division between "Christian and Jew, and North and South" have dominated political headlines since Labor Day, no such stirrings have been detected in the thinking of the voting public itself.

Racism is by no means the issue, as it was in 1964 when the positions of President Johnson and Sen. Barry Goldwater on the Civil Rights Act cemented black Americans to the Democratic column. Nor is there the emotional thrust of 1968 after the city riots. And Vietnam's peace and war themes dominated the 1968 and 1972 campaigns while the 1980s military preparedness debates do not.

Political historian James DAvid Barber says the 1980 election is "an easing election" -- not an election by " conflict" as in 1972, or "conscience" as in 1976.

Worn down by inflation and the lingering energy crisis, frustrated by the holding of US hostages for a year in Iran, Americans long for a quieter time -- a longing at odds with the stridency of the campaign rhetoric.

The fight appears more between the candidates than among the people.

Even social issues, like abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, appear to be playing at the fringes of the body politic.As a whole, both men and women are basically behind the Supreme Court's 1973 stand for legal abortion and the rights of women, say pollsters. The 1980 campaign has been remarkably free of protest demonstrations.

"There is no deep anger or frustration," observes Everett Ladd, director of the University of Connecticut's Institute of Social Research. Nor is there a clear-cut conservative or liberal momentum in the electorate; Mr. Ladd says: "The public is ambivalent in many policy areas. It does not want to go back, and it's not clear about going ahead either."

"What creates enthusiasm?" Ladd asks. "A really charasmatic candidate would cut through the public ambivalence and drift."

"The candidate standings are exactly what they were in mid-June," says Richard Scammon, director of the Election Research Center. "The idea that there must be some resolution of this closeness before election day might be wrong. Half the elections since World War II have been close.

"The surprise in 1980 could be that there's no surprise. My guess now is that it will be an extremely close election, resolved at the ballot box. That's what the election is for."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.