Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro has done something no conventional politician would think of doing: she has publicly said her opponent is more qualified to step into the presidency than she is, introducing a standard in American politics that's been missing a long time_truth in packaging.

This unusual, perhaps even unique, departure from accepted political wisdom occurred in an interview with "CBS Morning News" in which Ferraro was asked about a New York Times editorial that endorsed Walter F. Mondale and stated that Vice President Bush was more prepared for the presidency than she.

Ferraro: "No doubt about it. He's been there four years. I would expect that people would say that, or that The Times would, because that's a fact. He's been in the White House for four full years. If after four full years you're not better than somebody who's been in Congress for a lesser period you know, of time, then there's something wrong with you."

The reaction was predictable. According to a story in the next day's Washington Post, "privately, Ferraro's aides winced at her response. Campaign manager John Sasso, in a quick move toward damage control, said Ferraro was talking about public perception of her qualifications -- not any personal doubts about her abilities.

" 'What she was trying to say was, sure Bush has got some advantages in people's minds because he's been in the White House for four years. It's an honest statement,' Sasso said."

It was an honest statement, and while campaign aides might wince and backpedal in an effort at "damage control," it had an appealing ring of truth. More important, it told something fundamentally important about Ferraro the candidate. She is honest with herself and willing to be honest with voters, to say that yes, somebody who has been working in the White House for four years is going to know more than somebody who hasn't. Whatever you may think of Ferraro, you have to give her credit for saying what she thinks.

Contrast this attitude with that of her opponent, who once enjoyed the reputation of being a moderate Republican, but who shamelessly pandered to the far Right during their debate and has subsequently been criss crossing the country decrying "those liberals in the House," as though they were some form of Fifth Column. And contrast Ferraro's approach with the way Bush handled the matter of the "Kick Ass, George!" buttons his staff was handing out. Bush, the man who could at a moment's notice step into the presidency, told a Detroit interviewer he didn't have "any control over that staff, it appears. I wish I did at times."

One can only wonder at the fallout this remark would have caused had it come from Ferraro.

Political expediency, rather than honesty or candor, prevails in the Bush camp. Nowhere was this expressed better than in the comment made by the vice president's press secretary, Peter Teeley, on the matter of truth-telling in the debates.

According to a story in The New York Times, Teeley said: "You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it. . . . If reporters then document that a candidate spoke untruthfully, so what? . . . Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000."

Accepted political wisdom this fall is that the electorate is going to base its thinking on how the economy is faring, and that the greed factor is going to play a very large role. But the question of character -- the kind of people who want to lead the country -- has consistently been a factor in how people vote. It was the issue that plagued Sen. Edward M. Kennedy(D-Mass.), and it is a question that ought to be raised about both the challengers and the incumbents.

There was considerable speculation about what Ferraro could do for the Democratic ticket, much of it centered on whether she could attract women voters to the ticket, and that remains to be seen. She has opened the door for women to run for top offices, but she has also opened the door for getting a little more candor, a little more honesty into politics.

Her staff may be dismayed when she says Bush is more qualified -- political expediency would have dictated a very different answer -- but it's a very appealing remark. After all, foreign policy and the intricacies of running the presidency can be learned, as they have been to differing degrees by everyone occupying those jobs. Honesty and candor, however, are a little different qualities. You've either got them or you don't. Character is not something you learn.