It is an awkward American habit, largely abetted by the media, to make a sporting event of every encounter - to focus on ''winning'' and ''losing'' to the neglect of how the game is played. This is as true in politics and business as in sports and war. And it is the tendency in presidential debates.
This is too bad.
Presidential debates tend to help both candidates, perceived winner and loser , whether a winner is declared or not. They help the public. And they improve the quality of the election as a process of decision.
In the close election of 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford both benefited from the debates. Both needed to diminish negative public perceptions of their candidacies. Mr. Carter, as the lesser-known candidate, gained possibly more than Mr. Ford. But the outcome of the debates actually changed few votes. Mr. Carter's chief task was to shore up soft Democratic voters - to ''demonstrate that he merited their confidence,'' as his strategists later put it. Ford, trailing Carter badly, needed to make a dramatic run at Carter - an opportunity the debates afforded. As an unelected incumbent, Ford had to be seen fighting for the office on his own.
Similarly, both Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale can benefit from the two presidential debates reportedly planned for October. Certainly, if the President had tried to duck a debate, Mr. Reagan's commanding lead would have been harder to sustain in the face of a hounding by the media. But viewed positively, the debates give Mr. Reagan an opportunity to show self-confidence (as the incumbent , the choice to debate was really his). He can further solidify his base and emphasize why independent and Democratic voters should return his administration to office, which he must do as the leader of the minority party. Such an appeal by Mr. Reagan can also help GOP candidates on down the ballot.
Walter Mondale must give voters reason to think he is at least the equal of Mr. Reagan as a leader. A debate strategy based on luring his Republican opponent into a mistake is far from enough. Is Mr. Mondale tough enough, in negotiations, to hold up America's side? This is the same question he must address in meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko later next week, the day before Mr. Gromyko is scheduled to meet with President Reagan. Mr. Reagan's decided edge among male voters seems particularly keyed to this fundamental question of strength and integrity.
Does Walter Mondale have an activist economic policy of his own? - or does he simply plan to spend the next four years correcting Ronald Reagan's alleged mistakes? Americans don't want to hear an unpresidential quarrel over the past; they want to know who's got the best ideas and keenest zest for the next four-year chapter in the country's economic adventure. And the ''fairness'' question: Which candidate really has the more inclusive concept of social progress? Defense: Are Americans and the free world really safer because of US rearmament than they were four years ago?
If Mr. Mondale can answer these questions ably, he can possibly shore up his nominal constituency among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters to make 1984 the close election the Reagan White House had anticipated. In 1980, Mr. Carter's failure was not so much that he was bested in debate by Mr. Reagan; he failed to give voters reason to keep him another term.
The public's chief gain in debates is that, for that brief hour or two, they get to observe the candidates free of the media's filter. So much of the ''campaign'' is really an account of the campaign - or so many media events staged by the candidates under the pretense that candidates are mingling with the public. Sure enough, a wave of punditry and analysis will follow the 1984 debates, but some 90 percent of the voting public will have watched the debates firsthand.
We would have preferred three or four presidential debates and two vice-presidential debates. And we would have preferred the candidates to go at it one on one, without a press panel asking the questions.
Still, better fewer debates than none.
This year's campaign seems particularly to be waged like a television serial - or worse, like two television serials, existentially unrelated despite allusions to each other. Getting the two candidates into the same event frame will permit the direct comparisons this election greatly needs.