ONCE AGAIN, sensational charges are following a presidential candidate, and the nation is being confronted with questions on moral issues. Once again, issues have surfaced to force us to face basic feelings about fidelity, values, leadership.

Once again, all-too-familiar charges of philandering have been made and we are faced with making judgments that leave us uneasy, glancing nervously into the mirror for proof of our own sense of right and wrong.

What's okay and what's not okay? Will the '92 presidential race become known as the Tabloid Campaign?

In the case of Bill Clinton, the candidate knew he had a problem from the start. In fact, Bill and Hillary Clinton made a much-talked-about joint appearance last fall at a reporters's breakfast to confess that their marriage had once been rocky. Now, they say, they are together. Neither offered details about the former rockiness of the marriage, and who can blame them?

Still, the issues remain before the voters -- questions about honesty, character and judgment. When it was suggested during an interview last week that, after Gary Hart, a candidate who ran around while running for the presidency would have to be psychotic, Hillary Clinton burst out laughing. "That's a pretty fair estimate," she said. Clinton did not respond.

Despite the latest revelations, there is no concrete evidence that Clinton played around -- there's only an admission of "problems." Yet Clinton knows that nothing fascinates us more.

"Sigmund Freud knew more about human nature than Thomas Jefferson," he said. And he added: "I mean, I understand that. It's a whole lot more interesting than talking about shrinking the national debt."

"Sex always sells," Hillary added later. "You know that."

To say the least. The Star, a supermarket tabloid, has just printed allegations by a former nightclub singer named Gennifer Flowers, who claimed to have had a torrid 12-year affair with the Arkansas governor that began two years after his marriage to Hillary -- and claimed she had the taped conversations with Clinton to prove it. Clinton called the report "not accurate . . . just not true."

The Star has been on Clinton's case for two weeks in a row. And rumors have been rampant in Washington and political circles, so much so that Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown says, "Somebody's going to an extraordinary effort." Brown thinks that a dirty-tricks campaign may be part of it. It's really sad, tragic that a lot of us are spending time on smoke and mirrors."

The nightmare of a pre-election "surprise" -- a replay of the Gary Hart affair -- won't go away. That is why Democrats may be feeling a certain anxiety, wondering if the smoking bimbo is about to show up. First, a little perspective.

There is nothing new about sex-and-politics scandals.

During the 1988 campaign, there were rumors about George Bush, never substantiated, that have dogged Bush for years.

The reality is that Franklin Roosevelt did it. Ike did it. Jack Kennedy did it. Lyndon Johnson did it. Did it make any difference in their presidencies? And, in deciding what we think of these various presidents' indiscretions, is there a difference between one affair with the love of your life and a compulsion to knock off the entire Swedish bikini team? Was there a difference between Lucy Rutherford and Judith Campbell Exner?

More to the point, should the issue of marital fidelity be part of the national debate along with health care and relations with an independent Bosnia? Should all candidates be subject to the same scrutiny that Clinton has been subjected to?

There are endless questions: Do we want a bachelor like Bob Kerrey or Jerry Brown in the White House? The logistics of a presidential date would be tremendous: An entourage of 40-odd people, including sharpshooters, communications specialists, doctors, decoy limousines. For a date? Wouldn't gossip about the president's love life detract from the agenda? What if the president got AIDS? Or fell in love? People in love can be crazy. Do we want to chance that?

The private question of the Clintons' marriage has made this into a public issue. It's reminiscent of the media-and-the-law seminars that former CBS News president Fred Friendly used to put on.

Law professors would pose hypothetical questions to a group of high-powered journalists, politicians and legal experts. The questions would become increasingly difficult until the distinguished panel was backed up against the wall.

If the issue were sex and politics, it might go something like this:

Suppose the candidate had an affair 10 years ago with someone he cared deeply about, but it ended and his marriage was patched up?

Fine. No problem.

Suppose it was five affairs? Or 10? Or 50?

That was a long time ago. I suppose it's okay.

What about a married woman candidate with children who has had multiple affairs?

Well . . . .

Is there some sort of statute of limitations? What if it happened six months ago?

Well, it's a little close, but still, he hadn't said he wasn't doing anything then . . . besides, it's nobody's business.

Suppose something is going on right now?

Absolutely not acceptable.

Even if his wife knew about it and condoned it?

No.

What if he did it in the White House?

Out of the question.

Why?

And so on.

People I've talked to about this -- both real people and Washingtonians -- don't know what they think. They do at first, but when you pose hypothetical questions, the pauses between answers get longer.

People are confused because they haven't separated the difference between what they think and what they feel. Intellectually, what someone might have done in the past has no bearing on what kind of president he'd make. Viscerally, it makes people uncomfortable. Is it possible, they ask themselves, that a candidate could get himself involved with the sort of woman who would tape conversations and sell the story?

That kind of thing makes people uneasy. And if people decide that a candidate has been lying about his private life, they will get uneasier still.

Bill Clinton has wanted to be president for 20 years. He surely knows that any candidate who would have a long-running recent affair, lie about it and cover it up, would have to be unbelievably stupid. This past Wednesday, the governor and his wife talked about "The Issue" in a Washington hotel room. They were friendly and patient. Hillary Clinton seemed almost eager to put to rest the issue and the rumors. Bill Clinton looked as though, on the whole he'd rather be in Philadelphia. They were earnest, unemotional, not terribly defensive except when it came to the press. She managed to have a sense of humor about it; he appeared less relaxed.

Hillary Clinton is no Lee Hart, in the sense that she is not a traditional wife. She has a Yale law degree, financial independence and would do very badly in the role of victim.

"You know," she said, "most people would not like to be in a position of having to lay bare everything that's ever happened in their lives, because most people know that life's a learning experience and if you're a good person, if you're trying to make a good life, then you know it's a constant effort."

"Let me just say I think we have been remarkably candid, you know, in discussing this whole thing," said the candidate.

"I haven't seen anybody else grilled the way that we've been grilled," said his wife.

"We think that our marriage is very important to us," he said. "It's something that we have invested a lot of time and effort in . . . . We're more committed probably than many people we know who've been together as long as we have -- in part because we've tried to be very honest with each other . . . ."

Clinton is not sure that having problems in their marriage is a bad thing.

"I'm not sure," he said, "that people who have had to go through challenges and overcome them and deal with them don't empathize with the plight of all Americans better and are better suited to leadership, having lived a difficult life with different challenges. They may be like, you know, Franklin Roosevelt's physical problems that you try to overcome or whatever . . . .

"One of the things that has really disturbed me . . . as Hillary said to me one day not entirely in jest, 'Do you realize if I had divorced you two or three years ago, you'd be running for president and nobody would even sneeze at you?' You know, will the American people be better off with one of us instead of two? I can tell you what the answer to that is -- a loud no."

"It is highly ironic to me," she said, "that the fact that we have stood up for what we believed in, and we've been honest with each other and we've overcome problems together, is viewed as curious and opens us to questions . . . . And all I can tell you is that for us, we've made the right decisions and we're proud of what we've done together and whatever happens in this election . . . ."

"We're prepared to live with the consequences," he added.

Ironically, if the rumors have hurt Clinton, the publicity may actually have helped. But though polls show Clinton leading the Democratic pack in New Hampshire, polls can often be misleading. Gary Hart is never far from the mind when the issue arises.

The Clintons understand this. Their frustration is that they don't know what words to use.

"I've tried to utter as many phrases as I could and as candidly as I could, but you know, you can't stop the rumor mongers, you can't stop people offering people money to talk and say things . . . ."

They don't see the connection to Hart. "Gary made it an issue," says Hillary Clinton. "And that was an invitation."

Gary Hart blames his demise on the press. Both Clintons feel that the press is being too aggressive. "The press has substituted for what some government agency might have done somewhere else . . . " she said. "Sometimes you get the feeling that it's all just a part of the chase," he said.

Perhaps, but most reputable journalists agonize over this issue and their role in shaping the campaign. They look at their own behavior, go out and ask The Question -- and come back feeling sleazy and remorseful. And they often hate the story, just as they hate covering plane crashes. But they also worry about looking stupid if they miss something important. What forced Gary Hart out of the race was not adultery, but dishonesty, hypocrisy and appalling judgment.

Yet it is a fact that this is a country with a residual puritan ethic. In our hearts, we know adultery is not right. It doesn't make us feel good about the person doing it. And we believe the person doing it doesn't feel good about himself. In all the agonizing we did about Hart and the press, our declarations that adultery was not the issue were not entirely true. It just didn't seem modern somehow, or sophisticated or open-minded to say that adultery made us squirm.

Americans do think there are certain standards of behavior, character and morality that a president must maintain -- and women, in general, seem to care more about the issue of presidential character than men. That doesn't give people the right to know every detail about a person's private life, but a general idea helps. For the same reason we needed to know about Jimmy Carters hemorrhoids and Ronald Reagan's colon (though, maybe not all the gory details), we need to know a lot about the psychological and physical make-up of the person who has the power to send our sons and daughters to war. Gary Hart was an announced candidate for the presidency. We expected better.

We expected better of Jack Kennedy, and that is why the revelations about him disturb many Americans.

"I think presidents are people," said Bill Clinton, "and I think there are lots of different flaws and shortcomings people have." He couldn't say whether JFK's private life affected his ability. He did say that Kennedy "obviously was a man who thought he was ill, was in a hurry in life, grew up in a different time, was raised in a home where the rules were apparently different than most of us believe they should be now, and where the role of women in society was different than it is now."

Hillary Clinton asked, "The fact that there was never a hint of any misconduct about somebody else, like Richard Nixon, does that make him a better president? Who knows? These questions are simplistic in their intent that one area of a person's life -- their sexual conduct -- is their defining characteristic. And it may be for some people and it may not be for others."

For that matter, if Clinton's character is revealed to be flawed, is there any evidence that it affected his performance as governor of Arkansas? So what are we to think? What are the Clintons to do to help dispel these rumors before they become a running joke on "Saturday Night Live"?

Last fall, the Clintons' addressed the problem by conceding imperfections in their marriage; there was no pretense, no hypocrisy. But they got pushed off the track by the tabloid press, which forced Clinton into specific denials. Rather than admitting personal flaws, he crossed a line -- and got trapped into a new tactic. "It didn't happen," he said of Flowers, but, as he told the Los Angeles Times, "I don't know how you can disprove this."

This is all very titillating and produces good ratings on "Nightline." But the sad thing is that this campaign is about serious issues. America is in a recession. People are homeless and jobless and hungry, worried about crime, health care and AIDS. Bill Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, cannot be happy that his own campaign risks becoming a sideshow. The country doesn't need this.

Clinton surely understands his own dilemma better than anyone. That is why he began his campaign as he did, and why the decision to abandon that approach may haunt him. At the very least, he will be forced into endless repetitions of "magic words" about how he and Hillary once had problems but are stronger now than ever.

But anyone running for president also knows how quickly a campaign can turn into an ugly and humiliating spectacle if a Donna Rice suddenly materializes.

What no one knows, of course, is whether any of this matters to voters -- in New Hampshire and elsewhere. Yet if we have learned anything from the fate of Gary Hart, it is that a lie may hurt a presidential candidate more than a painful truth.

Sally Quinn is a Washington writer. Her new novel is "Happy Endings."