If it were not for the presidential and vice-presidential ''debates,'' the American public would have had few new bones to chew in making their election decision.
This isn't to praise Rounds 1 and 2 overmuch as debate performances. After Round 1, Walter Mondale emerged with the media advantage the following week. Curiously, in the view of those who did not watch the debate, Mr. Mondale won far more decisively than among those who saw it - which shows the influence of consensus journalism.
In Round 2, both the George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro camps saw reason to claim victory. Mr. Bush set out to reaffirm his boss's achievements, to showcase his experience in foreign affairs, and to shore up his own standing among the GOP's Southern and Western conservative wings. Although with at times a startlingly hyperactive enthusiasm (which prompted a commentator to quip, ''They decided to let Bush be Reagan!''), he succeeded. Ms. Ferraro aimed to show herself informed, collected, competent - to give her opponent no psychological edge on the platform, and to give those distrustful of a woman a step away from the Oval Office no excuse to dismiss her for reasons of gender. With a lawyerly manner, and her characteristic feistiness mostly subdued (which led some of her partisans to protest, ''Let Geraldine be Geraldine!''), she succeeded.
In terms of altering the underlying course of the election, Round 2 appeared a draw. The immediate response of those who watched the debate ran so subjectively along gender lines - Bush ''winning'' 3 to 1 among men in one post-debate survey, Ferraro ''even'' with Bush among women - that any attempts to score their encounter objectively as a forensic competition must be discounted.
The Philadelphia forum offered moments to ponder: Mr. Bush's acknowledgment of an ''evolution'' in his position on abortion, Ms. Ferraro's assertion that she was ''prepared to do anything necessary to secure this country'' if the Soviets attempted to intimidate her should she succeed to the presidency.
It is in such insights for the voter's reflection that this campaign's debates find their usefulness. The weeks are speeding by. Reporters covering the election complain openly of manipulation by the campaign organizations. They must cover pseudo-events, report stock speeches delivered at stage-prop settings , pan the cameras on invited crowds whose every chant is cheer-led by campaign ringers - all contrived to gain the advantage in evening news time measured in seconds.
The modern political campaign, like White House news coverage, is in danger of smothering under news control. ''Policy is now communicated by three questions shouted over the roof of a car,'' says Los Angeles Times reporter Sara Fritz, president of the White House Correspondents Association. She told the Wall Street Journal: ''I have actually heard reporters yell, 'What about the Middle East?' Is that any way to discuss foreign policy?''
Indeed. It would take courage for the news media to refuse to cover make-believe politics, to say, ''Sorry, we reported that speech last week in Des Moines.''
Perhaps political power should be redefined as the ability to command attention when one has nothing to say.
The debates - they're two-tracked news conferences, really - need improvement. There should be more of them. They should be mandatory. And experts , not all-purpose journalists, should do the follow-up questioning and analysis.
The public's need to make an informed election decision is of greater importance than the frustration of the media armada, captive in the presidential campaign's wake.
The ''campaign'' that matters is the private process going on in the individual voter's thought. This is the process the candidates, campaigns, and media should serve.