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CANDIDATES' CHARACTER IS VALID ISSUE

Despite the strong voter turnout in New Hampshire, many people remain deeply dissatisfied with how we select our presidential nominees.

Personal issues have superseded the substance of candidates' ideas.Already Bill Clinton and his wife have had to justify their marriage, and he has been forced to defend a thoughtful letter written as a college student.

Paul Tsongas has stripped to a swimsuit to prove his health.

Bob Kerrey has had to explain repeatedly why his family business cannot afford to buy private health insurance for its workers.

Character is a legitimate political issue, especially in a president.

But the campaign is actually neglecting the qualities of character that relate most directly to the capacity to govern.

We should know not just what the candidates say about issues but who they are: their depth, intelligence, honesty, sense of responsibility, courage.

Easily lost in the obsession with personal character, however, are more relevant questions about political character.

What are the candidate's core political values?

Does he have a firm sense of the direction in which he wants to lead the nation?

Is he secure with himself - with his convictions and his conscience?

Other questions are more mundane but hardly unimportant: Does the candidate have the skill to build a coalition among disparate groups?

Will he be able to gain the trust and respect of members of Congress?

Will he be able to handle himself with foreign leaders?

Does he have the force of character and persuasive talent to get others to go along with him?

Does he have the judgment to select good advisers and Cabinet members?

Unlike a parliamentary system, where leaders are picked by peers who know them, we have developed a self-nomination system where almost anyone with the ambition can run for president.

A candidate is not required to pass any test; he or she does not need any organizational base of support; it is not even necessary for him or her to have been elected to office before.

Dealing with questions of political character in the campaign has become so difficult because we have confused the party nomination process with the presidential election itself.

The election is the business of the people. But the nomination is more properly the business of the parties.

Party leaders have lost the power to screen candidates and select a nominee who will best represent the party in the November election.

The mass media become the only forum for dealing with questions of character, personal or political.

Voters end up desperately trying to substitute for a nomination process that is incapable of passing judgment on character.

Rumors begin to pass for news, and reporters are forced to engage in the psychoanalysis of candidates.

Everyone involved is cheapened - the candidates, the reporters and the voters.

The solution is to reduce the influence of the primaries and boost the influence of party leaders, who can be held accountable for the personal and political character of a nominee.

The "super-delegates" category established within the Democratic Party after 1984 allows some opportunity for this, but it should be strengthened.

A presidential election is our national celebration of democracy. It should provide an occasion for serious debate worthy of a great country.

The process should have some dignity - even nobility.

Our citizens deserve a full opportunity to become informed, not just about the issues but about what kind of political character each candidate would bring to the presidency.

(Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale is head of the Mondale Policy Forum at the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.)