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.