CLEVELAND -- The good news for the Democrats is that their presidential candidates turned in competent, if rarely inspirational, performances as they auditioned their campaign speeches for their party's state leaders here last weekend. The bad news is that the voters they have to reach simply aren't listening.
Hours after the Democrats adjourned their two-day session, which drew saturation coverage in the Cleveland media, Paul Taylor of The Post and I knocked on doors in two precincts. Both went heavily Democratic for senator, governor and local offices in the last two elections, but supported President Reagan by wide margins over Walter Mondale. Among these voters -- busy washing cars, preparing supper, returning from boating trips or late-afternoon church services -- awareness of the event and the participants was as lacking as belief that last week's change of managers will salvage the Indians' baseball season.
These white, mainly blue-collar voters all know Jesse Jackson and are vocal on why they would reject him as president. Several had noticed the novelty of a woman, Rep. Pat Schroeder of Denver, on the news clips of the Democratic speakers and were curious if the reporters thought she would actually run.
But the men the Democratic state chairmen regard as the serious contenders for the nomination -- Bruce Babbitt, Joe Biden, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, Albert Gore Jr. and Paul Simon -- are simply a blur to the voters. This was the case even after their pictures and words dominated the front page and filled column after column of the only local paper, The Plain Dealer, for three days.
The same voters who can dissect the strengths and weaknesses of Oliver North and John Poindexter, and even tell you what they like or dislike about Republican front-runners George Bush and Bob Dole, stand mute -- and a bit embarrassed -- when the names of the Democrats are mentioned.
''I haven't heard that much. . . . I don't know that one . . . or that one. . . nope, not him either,'' they will say.
Democratic professionals understand the mushiness of public opinion, the phoniness of the early polls. They invent rationalizations that there's no harm in having a set of nearly invisible candidates.
''It only took four days for Ollie North to become a national hero,'' said New Jersey chairman Ray Durkin. ''Our guy can get famous just as fast.''
Indeed he can. The winners of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary next winter will become instant celebrities. By convention time, the prospective nominee's face and name will be familiar to most Americans. Many party pros even argue that it's advantageous to have a protracted period in which the candidates for the nomination can rehearse their speeches and tune up their acts before large numbers of voters begin watching them.
Evidence for that argument was supplied by Babbitt. He was as effective in his Cleveland talk as he had been inept in his appearance with his rivals two weeks earlier in the ''Firing Line'' public-television forum in Houston.
But ultimately it's an act of self-delusion for the Democrats to pretend that there is not a price to be paid for having a field of unknowns opposing Jackson for the nomination. The presidency is a singular office, embodying the hopes and fears of millions of individual Americans. And the recent disillusionment with President Reagan makes those voters specially cautious about being burned again.
Frances Kolene, a retiree, was the first voter I met here -- a Democrat for Reagan until the Iran-contra affair. ''I had full confidence in him,'' she said, ''but now I don't know. I don't think he's being honest with us, and I'm really worried. I think the whole security of our country is endangered because everyone looks down on us.''
Millions of others like Kolene have had their confidence shaken by their experience with Reagan in recent months, and they want the next president, as she said, to be ''someone strong, someone who will check up on people and make it his business to know what they're doing.''
Democrat Kolene sees those qualities in a couple of Republicans -- Dole and White House chief of staff Howard Baker. But the contenders in her own party, except for Jackson, are total ciphers to her.
History shows voters rarely put strangers in the White House. Reagan had been a major figure in national politics for 16 years before gaining the presidency, and a familiar presence on movie and TV screens for a full generation before that. Richard Nixon won the prize in his fourth national campaign; Dwight Eisenhower, after commanding the armed forces that liberated Europe.
John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter were the only relative strangers to win the White House in the modern era, and both just barely made it. In 1960 and 1976, their more familiar Republican opponents were gaining votes by the carload in the final days of the campaign by exploiting voters' fear of the unknown.
Later, if not now, the Democrats are almost certain to pay a price for offering a skeptical nation a stranger as president.