at least in theory - are supposed to allow voters to choose between two hopefuls and their beliefs on important questions facing the country, such as the economy, the federal budget deficit, defense, foreign policy, and taxes.

Unfortunately, this election campaign seems bogged down in trivia, side issues, and a strategy by both camps to avoid any details about important issues for the future.So far, argument has raged over the background of the vice presidential candidates, who served where in the Vietnam era, and which presidential candidate is most devoted to the idea of saying the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

Both Gov. Michael Dukakis and Vice President George Bush performed well in their respective party conventions and emerged with more stature than when they entered. What has happened since has had little to do with learning where they stand on the issues.

The vice presidential portions of the ticket have gotten all the attention. Meanwhile, Dukakis is leaning as far away as he can from anything that might label him as a "liberal," while Bush is doing all he can to paint him with that particular brush.

The current argument is over 1977 Dukakis' veto of a state Massachusetts bill requiring teachers - under the threat of criminal penalties - to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance. The veto came after an advisory opinion from the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the law would be unconstitutional. The veto was over-ridden by an overwhelming majority in both houses of the Massachusetts Legislature. The law is on the books where it is both uncontested and unenforced.

Dukakis' record as a governor is fair game in the campaign, of course, but somebody ought to address the substantial issues that the winner will have to face as president. Finger pointing and an "I am not," "Yes you are, too," campaign hardly bestows dignity and confidence.

If this keeps up, the winner, as columnist George F. Will says elsewhere on this page, may win principally "because he is not the other guy." The voters need better reasons than that for choosing a president.

The people want to know what their next president plans to do when he gets in office. Merely being in favor of good times and against bad times, and otherwise keeping mum on the subject is of no help to anyone.