The combination of politics and popular culture makes for an awkward alliance.

Images arise of candidates emulating entertainers, of campaigns reported as athletic contests and of platforms with the appeal and veneer of commercials. However, politics still deals with complex and consequential issues, which deserve to be taken seriously. Candidates should be judged on their character and competence, not as coached or photogenic "personalities."

Popular culture, in contrast, is meant mainly for relaxation. Thus political issues are simplified, often to suit the media's modes of presentation. In like manner, politicians tend to be judged by how well they come across as b public performers.

There is, of course, no shortage of purely fictional performances dealing with political themes. Every season comes up with a quota of TV scripts and series devoted to politics. While these treatments run the range from farce to tradedy, they share at least on e denominator: They avoid controversial issues that might offend substantial segments of their audiences.

Most Americans still feel deeply about issues carrying political overtones. (There is less pathy than appearances often suggest.) Hence the risk of arousing resentments if issues seem unfairly presented. Indeed, there are many questions people would rather leave unraised. Like how equitable we distribute the nation's income; or the public's responsibility for Watergate and Vietnam.

So, on the whole, the media stick to "safe" political subjects, or ones in which the audience itself comes out clean. Perhaps the most recurrent of these is corruption. At least everyone is against it.

Virtue can, of course, triumph over corruption, as it did in Frank Capra's fabled "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), where a native United States senator wins out over his cynical seniors - as it happens, by mobilizing some Boy Scout troops. The more solemn movies like "Advise and Consent (1962) and "The Best Man" (1964) also showed the victory of principle, if by some skewed casting of the villain.

A reverse approach has politics corrupting innocence. For example "All the King's Men" (1949) based on Robert Penn Warren's prize winning novel, turns a rural idealist into a populist despot.

A more "modern" portrayal came with Robert Redford's performance as "The Candidate" (1972). Here the central figure was a young, public service lawyer from a comfortable, middle-class background, impelled into politics by his concern for the plight of the poor. However, the "system" gradually seduces him. Media experts persuade him to reduce his messages to 30-second spots; interest groups exact concessions in return for contributions and endorsements.

Bit by bit he learns to live with these "realisties" which the script implies are inevitable. (It even adds infidelity with an attractive campaign worker, presumably par for the political course.) Having the hero from suburban surroundings suggests that even well meaning liberals must suffer a loss of innocence - and integrity.

Television, the most "mass" of the media, tends to skirt politics at its edges. Soap operas and situation comedies introduce issues - abortion, crime, race prejudice - but they either keep on a plane of interpersonal relations or attack offstage targets. Politicians come across as stock characters: crooks or buffoons or cynics. We turn on TV to unwind, not to ponder the state of the nation.

In marked contrast, popular music has become a format for political expression, especially to younger audiences. Artists like the Beatles in early 1960s, and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez amid the civil rights and Vietnam protests, offered subtle indictments of their society. Even today, popular performers such as James Taylor and Carole King show an America so gripped by materialism and amorality that political participation is futile. It may well be that all those stridently amplified stereos are the "radical" demonstrations of our era.

Moreover, politicians are attacked by both liberal and conservative cartoonists every day on the editorial pages of our nation's newspapers. And Trudeau's purely political comic strip, "Doonesbury," won a Pulitzer prize.

Thus via scripts, songs, cartoons and scenarios, politics has found a place in our popular culture. But what of the reverse relationship: the impact of impact of entertainment on the world of politics?

In simpler days politicians crossed the country by railroad, pausing at whistle-stops and shaking hands at county fairs. Newspaper reports came in leisurely, gray-columned lengths, which were in turn discussed in general stores and city cafes. Citizens knew candidates at firsthand, and issues hit close to home.

Were things really that way? Fact and fancy often get entangled. Even so, we do know that voting reached its all-time highs in the 1890s and has been on a downswing ever since.

It has become commonplace to observe that people have little firsthand experience of politics. "A modern campaign is conducted nearly wholly in the press, especially on television," says Jann Wenner, "Rolling Stone" editor. "There is the so-called news, which is at least half-contrived, controlled events; and there is advertising, wholly contrived and unashamed propaganda."

According to this analysis, the mode of presentation decides what will be seen. Televised news requires theatrical on some-spot settings. Better , therefore, to carry cameras to a vandalized, half-finished housing project than have an economist explore prevailing paradoxes in interest rates.

Indeed, problems that defy easy depiction may get no mention at all. Much the same can be said of the spot advertising used by candidates during elections. (Or can we say that watching an aspirant walking pensively on a beach gives an underlying clue to his character?)

The conclusion in many quarters is that the best way to attract an audience is by adding the dramaturgy of debate. This strategy apparently succeede, both in 1960 and 1976, when the Kennedy-Nixon and Ford-Carter encounters broke records for political broadcasts.

Actually, they were less "debates" than two-person press conferences, responding to panels of reporters. At the same time, voters apparently felt they had gained added insight on the contenders, particularly in their composure under pressure. Still, subsequent discussions dwelled more on "who won?" than with the substantive content of the presentations.

Is it the main interest of the media to make politics a spectator sport: a sort of stretchedout conterpart of the Super Bowl? The primaries can be seem as weekly epsiodes of a serial. Polls measure the nation's mind, finding enough "don't knows" and "undecideds" to keep even one-sided contests alive. We "watch" a campaign as if it were an event created for an audience, rather than a process whose very core is personal participation.

Thus many argue that by merging politics with popular culture, appearances win out over reality and the media constrain the message. Yet the critics are not agreed on the culprit. Some blame the top decision-makers of the media, saying they impose their preferences on the public. Others claim that the communicators are simply responding to a citizenry that wants its news and views in capsules.

Yet it is possible to suggest that Americans are still political creatures, with ideas and interests of their own. Even at a distance they can size up the stature of a candidate and see the issues at stake in an election. Citizens certainly make mistakes and can succumb to alluring by misleading presentations. But it seldom happens when the outcome really counts.

"Voters are not fools," was the way a political scientist once put it. Inde ed, it can be argued that exposure to modern media has heightened our sophistication. If that is so, we have a more acute political understanding and seek a politics that will meet our expectations.