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Let the campaign begin - with debates

Presidential campaigns seem to have a hundred starts; no wonder the public barely turns its head each time the starting gun goes off. For Walter Mondale, did the trek begin in February of 1983 at his St. Paul, Minn., announcement? The Iowa caucuses? The first primary debate? The last debate? His Democratic convention acceptance speech? Does it begin again with the Labor Day campaign kickoff?

And Ronald Reagan: Did his campaign begin a year ago this spring with a Southern swing to rev up his conservative base? Or with his announcement earlier this year? His renomination last week in Dallas?

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With so many starts behind them, must we go through it again, gather at the Labor Day starting line, and see Ronald and Walter off as if for the first time?

All this pretense about novelty puts unnecessary burdens on campaign staffs as well as on the public. After all, both Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan have been around a long time. The antecedents of their aspirations for the White House far predate their ''official'' campaigns; the record of their service in Washington, four years each of White House stewardship, is plain to see.

This campaign would benefit from direct presidential debates starting early in the fall season, rather than late.

There is a lot for the two contenders to talk about, face to face, in the same time frame. Religion and politics, for example. Last Wednesday President Reagan said, ''Politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality's foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related. ... And our government needs the Church because only those humble enough to admit they are sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive.'' It was not until Monday that Walter Mondale responded. He said the framers of the Constitution, looking at Europe, ''saw that every time you let the politicians interfere with religious faith, you destroyed it, because you destroyed its integrity and its independence. ... They decided when they shaped this nation that religion would be here, and would be between ourselves and our God, and the politicians would be over there, and we'd never get the two mixed up.''

Instead of these long-distance, time-lapse exchanges, let the candidates talk to each other about religion-related topics like school prayer and an abortion amendment.

The same with the deficit and taxes. Mr. Mondale argues that high interest rates and the strong dollar, effects of the deficit, are hurting small-business people and farmers. ''Since small business is so exceedingly credit-sensitive - it's the biggest cost for most small businesses, it's the biggest impediment to growth,'' he says; ''the effect of these deficits is, in a strange way, a massive tax, hidden, called interest and not taxes, but a tax on small businesses in America.'' Mr. Reagan has been calling inflation the ''cruelest tax.'' Is inflation or interest rates the arch economic villain? Ironies on both sides bear explaining: During the Carter administration, interest rates were higher than now; the Reagan administration is criticized by Republicans like Rep. Jack Kemp for not doing enough to persuade the Federal Reserve Board to help lower short-term interest rates.

And what about national security and foreign policy? Do not the new Soviet cruise missile tests remind Americans of the need to revive a structure for arms talks?

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Meanwhile, reports surface from both the Mondale and Reagan camps of muddling , of dissent, of jockeying for power in an ensuing White House administration. The Reagan acceptance speech is criticized as too partisan, too political, even its poetic moments as misfiring on the unattentive Dallas crowd. Mondale labors to rein in the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose promises of support have been almost as numerous as Mondale campaign starts.

Let's hear from the two candidates themselves - spacing out the three logical presidential debate topics, economics, foreign policy, and social policy, over the last eight weeks before the election.

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