DO the Republicans have the edge on patriotism? In 1977 Michael Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, vetoed a bill requiring schoolchildren to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag every day; he invoked a 1943 US Supreme Court ruling. George Bush sees in this grounds to impugn Dukakis's patriotism. Dukakis questions whether Bush has a sufficient grasp of the Constitution to be president.

The sudden acute interest in the pledge brings to mind the efforts to ``put God back in the schools'' by means of classroom prayer. But neither genuine prayerfulness nor genuine patriotism is fostered by a mandatory group approach. The American system allows freedom to choose, and that freedom makes individual actions more meaningful.

The more specific concern at the moment, however, is what the pledge flap says about the level of the debate during the presidential campaign. Both candidates have political vulnerabilities. But where is the discussion of Dukakis's role in the Boston Harbor cleanup? Or of Bush's during the Iran-contra affair?

Instead what we get is a series of long-distance charges and countercharges, conveyed through the news media.

Particularly disappointing is the Bush campaign's announcement last week that he would not debate before Sept. 20. This wipes out two debates set for next month.

Many voters have not made up their minds on the candidates. The contenders won't be of much help unless they can rise above what we've heard so far, and face-to-face debates are the way to do it.

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