If you can believe our presidential candidates, we Americans are in sorry shape.

Oh, they butter us up with talk about our greatness, our shining future and proud past, the whole city-on-a-hill thing. But underneath the blandishments, they seem to believe that we are in deep, deep trouble.

"Our standards of right and wrong have all but disappeared," says Lamar Alexander.

"As a people we're beginning to lose faith in our own institutions," says Elizabeth Dole. "It's only a short step to losing faith in ourselves, and then we would be lost."

"In spite of a Dow Jones industrial average over 10,000, a growing economy, in spite of all those things to our credit, you and I know there is something wrong in America," says Gary Bauer.

George W. Bush talks about a country that seems "spiritually adrift." In one of his 1996 speeches, "We Need a Renewal of Spirit in this Country," he really let us have it: "Across the board, we went from a culture of sacrifice and saving to a culture obsessed with grabbing all the gusto. We went from accepting responsibility to assigning blame. . . . We became a nation of victims. . . . The truth is, we must turn back to God and look to Him for help."

It's not just Republicans, either. In an interview a few weeks ago, Bill Bradley told me he'd been struck by how many Americans are "searching for meaning in their life that's deeper than material." In his pre-campaign memoir, he mourned our "lost values" and said, "Self-indulgence has infiltrated America."

Even Al Gore -- who you might think, as the nearest thing in this race to an incumbent, would give us a break -- isn't satisfied with our moral development. He talks about a "cultural soul sickness," and warns, "Americans know that the fundamental change we need will require not only new policies, but more importantly a change of both our hearts and minds."

Ever since Jimmy Carter diagnosed our "malaise" and sank accordingly in the polls, politicians have known there's danger in pointing to our psychic and spiritual faults. Yet this year's crop of candidates seems united on the issue of America's moral decay.

Partly the candidates are just trying to distinguish themselves from the moral failings of the real incumbent. Sometimes this is explicit: "Yes, we've been let down," Dole says, "and by people we should have been able to look up to." Sometimes it's indirect, as when Gore says, "It is our own lives we must master if we're to have the moral authority to guide our children."

Partly it reflects the quandary of running for president at a time of unprecedented prosperity and relative peace. A challenger in such conditions can argue that the good times are illusory, as when Alexander directs us to "look behind the screen of their magic show." Or he can admit the good times are real but assert that the incumbent doesn't deserve any credit, as when Bush complains, "They did not invent prosperity, any more than they invented the Internet." But such arguments tend to come across as more whine than substance.

A challenger can point to the Americans left behind, a theme for both Bradley and Bush. But recent economic data show that even blacks and blue-collar workers, long stranded by the rising tide, are now beginning to benefit. And besides, those left behind don't vote in such large numbers.

So that leaves the values plank for challenger and semi-incumbent alike. "Prosperity must have a purpose," Bush says, and Gore agrees: "The issue is not only our standard of living, but our standards in life."

More Americans think the country is generally in better shape than at any time since 1964, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. But when it comes to values and moral beliefs, Americans also, by a whopping 76 to 21 percent margin, believe that the country is on the wrong track, according to a poll conducted last fall by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University. This is true even though many indices of moral decline -- crime, drug use, teen pregnancy -- have improved in recent years, along with the economy. The Littleton shootings gave urgency to sentiment that was already deeply felt.

How to find meaning beyond material prosperity, to find time for family and community -- these are central questions for many Americans. But it's not easy for candidates to speak to them without violating the cardinal post-Reagan rule of avoiding gloominess. That's why Bush quickly follows his talk of moral decline with promises of a better tomorrow and then, just to make sure, spells it out for us: "I say `a better tomorrow' because I've learned that people want to follow an optimist."

The bigger uncertainty is whether voters will look for answers on these moral issues to a president, or a presidential candidate. No one talks more eloquently than the Oval Office's current occupant, after all, nor with more apparent sincerity, about values and personal responsibility. The dents he put in the bully pulpit with the gap between his talk and his behavior may take more than one election cycle to repair.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.