Democracy is a most peculiar form of government. It depends for its vitality on an election process in which exceptional people voluntarily subject themselves, their careers and their reputations to the whim of the voters, most of whom are their inferiors in knowledge, energy, ambition and eloquence. So it is this year.

Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro are, by any reasonable reckoning, four of the most successful people in America. In every case, it is a success earned by dedication, drive and ability. Yet in two months' time, two of these four talented and successful people will be sent into retirement with the label of losers.

The system of democracy demands that sort of ritual sacrifice. As voters in this republic, we have come o accept the competition of the talented as an entitlement. Only when a contestant says, as Ferraro did last week, that she or he is having second thoughts about being served up as the entree at this dinner of democracy, do we look at the process from a different point of view.

Before we all get caught up in the finger-pointing and judgment-passing that constitute a campaign, we might pause for just a moment to note what extraordinary people these are.

Ronald Reagan was 53 years old -- financially secure enough to retire from a successful 30-year career in broadcasting, movies and television -- when he made the speech for Barry Goldwater that launched him on his second profession -- politics.

Since then he has run successfully in three major elections, has served for eight years as governor of California and for almost four years as president of the United States. In both Sacramento and Washington, he brought about basic changes of policy direction that altered the lives of millions. He has survived a host of political challenges and one assassination attempt. Now at 73, he is putting it all on the line in a bid for reelection he could easily have sidestepped, had he wished.

George Bush was born to wealth and family position, an American aristocrat. He could easily have followed the path from Yale to Wall Street, with a guarantee of success, as success in America is usually measured.

Instead, he chose a different trail, from Navy aviator to oil wildcatter to politician. By taking that route, he invited -- and experienced -- defeat, first in a Senate race and then in the quest for the presidential nomination. But he also managed to serve his party and country in a variety of positions as broad and challenging as any man in public life.

Walter Mondale has the reputation of being a cautious, almost colorless politician -- a pale shadow of his mentor, the late Hubert Humphrey. But that image is contradicted by a career in whicondale has constantly chosen to test himself in ever tougher competition and for ever higher stakes. The law student became a party organizer. The young attorney vied with others for appointment as state attorney general. Once elected to the post, the attorney general set his sights on a U.S. Senate seat and won it -- by appointment. Reelected to the Senate, he went after the vice presidential nomination, which older and more experienced colleagues coveted. The defeated former vice president tackled seven rivals for the presidential nomination of his party.

Now, as the nominee, he is challenging the popular and telegenic incumbent president to a series of television debates. All of these chapters in the Mondale biography speak of talent and determination on a large scale.

And what about Geraldine Ferraro? This daughter of an immigrant storekeeper, left fatherless at eight, went through college on a scholarship, taught school and studied law a night, became a wife and mother of three, returned to work as a prosecutor, was elected to Congress, and now is the first woman vice presidential candidate of a major political party.

Recognize them for what they are: exceptional individuals. Recognize that in two months, by the collective will of millions of us who have not pushed ourselves so hard or challenged ourselves so often, two of them will also be labeled as losers.

Feel free to criticize them. They are fair game. But remember, too, that democracy and elections with real choices depend on the willingness of the talented, the tenacious, the ambitious men and women to become candidates.

The stakes for them -- and the pressures -- over the next two months are beyond our imagining. But not beyond our saluting.