IT IS, NO surprise that the current presidential contenders are not rushing to name Charles Darwin as their running mate. Mr. Darwin's approval ratings, after all, are not ones a presidential candidate would envy. Some surveys suggest that only 10 percent of Americans believe in pure Darwinian evolution, while some 44 percent believe in the Biblical creation account as literally described in Genesis and an additional 40 percent believe in divinely guided evolution. Even in the face of this reality, however, one might have hoped that the candidates would have the courage -- at least when pushed -- to support unequivocally the teaching of evolutionary biology, and not creationism, in public schools. So far, their response has not been especially encouraging.

The failure of Vice President Al Gore Jr., who has held himself out as an avatar of science education, to speak clearly on this issue is particularly glaring. Mr. Gore's camp initially refused to criticize the recent decision by the Kansas Board of Education to remove evolution from its statewide science curriculum. A vice presidential spokesman said that he supports the teaching of evolution but also believes localities should be free to teach creationism. When it was pointed out that this was unconstitutional, Mr. Gore's staff shifted his position to belief that "localities should be free to teach creationism in the context of" religion, not science, classes. By day's end Friday, a spokeswoman went a step further and added that Mr. Gore thought the Kansas decision was "a mistake, and he opposes it."

Former Sen. Bill Bradley also declined to oppose explicitly the Kansas decision, but his support for evolution in schools, in a statement released Friday, was far less muddied than Mr. Gore's.

Mr. Gore's position, however equivocal, is considerably better than that of his Republican rivals. George W. Bush supports the teaching of creationism alongside evolution. Elizabeth Dole and John McCain say the matter should be left to the states. And Steve Forbes recently clarified his views on evolution and creationism as follows: "I've, as you know, in terms of evolution, some of those illustrations, for example, we had in biology textbooks . . . turns out to have been a massive fraud."

The next president will not have to decide whether children study evolution, so in a practical sense, it doesn't matter much whether the candidates are spineless about standing up for science. As a window on their unwillingness to support unpopular truths, however, their collective reaction to the Kansas decision is a telling one. With such courageous leaders, it is a good thing that the public continues to have confidence that math and chemistry are legitimate subjects.