CHARACTER is the big issue in this presidential campaign. Does George Bush have strength of character? Is Bob Dole marred by a mean-spiritedness in his makeup? Already, on the Democratic side, Gary Hart and Joe Biden have failed to measure up to the character test.
The emphasis on character is a spinoff from the Vietnam war and Watergate when both Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were found wanting by most Americans.
Johnson, despite high marks for humanitarianism on domestic issues, was judged lacking in forthrightness. His was a wheeler-dealer image.
And while Mr. Nixon scored high in his dealings abroad, the final verdict from the public was that he didn't tell the truth.
Much has been written of late on the question of whether President Reagan dealt squarely with the public on the Iran-contra affair. Polls on this issue reflect a widespread feeling that the President made some bad mistakes - but no conclusion was drawn that the general public thinks Mr. Reagan isn't a square shooter.
Indeed, this public attitude toward the President explains his recent rebound in the polls - in some surveys his rating once again is above the 50-percent mark. Americans actually see Reagan doing a better job, particularly in his negotiations with the Soviets.
Had President Reagan flunked the character test - as Johnson and Nixon did - he would not have had a comeback. The public doesn't quickly turn around and applaud a president who has been judged as failing that requirement.
Since Watergate, presidential aspirants have been under scrutiny. Every aspect of their public and private lives has been dug up and reviewed closely for hints of bad character.
Jimmy Carter passed the character test with flying colors. The public impression that Mr. Carter was a good, moral person was important in his coming out of nowhere to gain the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Further, although Carter was eventually viewed as a less-than-effective leader, he was never perceived as being evasive or dishonest.
President Gerald Ford also brought a breath of fresh air to the presidency. He may not have been, in the end, all the voters wanted in the White House, but Mr. Ford's clear expression of openness was what the American public wanted in the presidency in the wake of Watergate.
So once again, beginning with the caucuses in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary, the voters are applying post-Vietnam and post-Watergate standards: They want to make sure that the person who moves into the highest office in the land can look them squarely in the eye, and uses a full deck of cards.
How can voters select the most highly principled candidate from the pack? Some guidelines might prove helpful:
Look carefully and long at those seeking the presidency. Don't make snap judgments. Don't let partisanship blind you to a candidate's character flaws.
Ask yourself of each candidate seeking your support: ``Does he want to do something for society - or does he simply (or mainly) want to be somebody?''
Don't expect to find perfection.
If you observe carefully you should be able to eliminate candidates who are overly driven by personal ambition. You certainly will be helped in identifying the opportunists and those whose private lives don't measure up to the exemplary standards expected of the president of the United States.
The US political process provides helpful screening. Most of the 1988 presidential candidates have passed the ability and character test in previous elections.
For example, aspirants like Jack Kemp and Richard Gephardt have faced the scrutiny of their constituents every two years for quite a while now. Dole, Simon, Dukakis, Gore, du Pont, and Babbitt have also had to measure up every few years to voter requirements. And Mr. Bush has been living in the goldfish bowl of the vice-presidency.
The road to the presidency is a painful one for all who take on this quest. It is arguable that this agonizing process keeps the best and brightest from seeking the office. But it can also be asserted that only the truly strong are willing to go into this crucible.
It has also been said that those able to withstand the presidential campaign and emerge as president have been toughened and readied for the job ahead - including the awesome task of dealing with Soviet leaders and deterring nuclear disaster.
Finally, don't be turned off because all of the candidates seem so ``political.''
No one should forget that perhaps the prime requirement of the president is to be a leader. That means he needs to be able to rally the people behind him as he seeks to shape the course of the nation. That takes political skill of the highest order.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.