"I'M REMINDED of one of my favorite Biblical quotations: 'The truth will set you free,' and in this case a lot sooner than I expected." That's the sound of a candidate, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, departing the presidential race. Yesterday Democrat Babbitt and Republican Pete du Pont officially withdrew from the race.

They are two former governors of sharply different political views whose campaigns, oddly, had something in common. They started early and campaigned long and hard in Iowa and New Hampshire. They appeared together last May in Des Moines in the first debate of the campaign season. They set out detailed, specific, original positions on important issues. They did a lot of the things that a lot of reform-minded critics say a candidate should do -- and they lost.

Mr. Babbitt tried to make a virtue out of his willingness to stand up and state unpopular truths -- he even stood up in one debate to make his point. He backed a national sales tax, with exemptions for food and drugs, to reduce the federal deficit, and he proposed some ingenious forms of "needs-testing" federal programs to reduce benefits for the rich so as to increase them for the needy. He had ideas on how to use government at home to help reform work places to get management and workers to increase productivity. Some argue that his candor about taxes did him in. We're more inclined to accept his own, characteristically original, analysis: that voters were unready to back for president a candidate they didn't know whose issue positions didn't come wrapped in a familiar conservative or liberal package.

Mr. du Pont did not present as comprehensive (or, in our view, as wise) a set of proposals; like many statewide candidates, he concentrated on three or four catchy items. He would allow baby boomers to opt out of Social Security, would phase-out farm subsidies, would refuse drivers' licenses to teen-agers who don't pass drug tests and backed a school voucher plan.

Both candidates showed an impressive command of other issues as well and slogged it out on the campaign trail in good humor and, in Mr. Babbitt's case, with a wicked wit as well. For a few weeks last month, Mr. Babbitt's campaign seemed to be taking off in Iowa and New Hampshire; Mr. du Pont was buoyed momentarily by the endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader. But neither did well in the first two contests. Both retired from the fray yesterday with good grace. They left the race with heads high and with better reputations and more admirers than when they began.