* The federal deficit may be the most difficult issue to register with voters. Although studies show the average family's share of the $4 trillion debt - the accumulation of all past deficits - is more than $50,000, studies also show that among voters' top priorities are programs that require more federal funding. Bill Clinton and George Bush have stayed clear of bold declarations on spending cuts and tax hikes that others say are needed to restore balance. Ross Perot speaks of little else. But conventional

wisdom holds that while Congress is controlled by special interests with big funding demands, prospects for balancing the budget (last done in 1970) are remote. BUSH

The president's budget proposal submitted in January of this year favored a cap on entitlement programs - including Medicaid, Medicare, and farm supports - but not Social Security. He proposes cutting $300 billion in programs over the next five years and to lower taxes with an undefined "across the board tax cut." He supports the balanced-budget amendment, but his detractors on Capitol Hill remind him that he has never submitted a balanced budget. CLINTON

Missing from Mr. Clinton's campaign treatise, "Putting People First," are ways to reduce the debt burden. Some charge that his goal of slashing the deficit in half by 1996 does not mesh with his four-year plan to spend $220 billion on "investment" programs and an untold amount on public health. To bridge the gap he calls for more military cuts, cutting 100,000 federal jobs, raising taxes on incomes of $200,000 and up, and a tax on foreign corporations. PEROT

The desire to see Uncle Sam's debt reduced and dissatisfaction with the approaches of the two other candidates formed the springboard for his campaign. Bush and Clinton assert that Mr. Perot's approach to eliminating the deficit is too radical. He calls for a spending freeze and supports legislation to mandate a balanced budget. He proposes a 50-cent per gallon gasoline tax (a 10-cent increase per year over a five-year period) and a one-third cut in Social Security cost-of-living increases.

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