TELEVISION'S INFLUENCE on elections and political events is huge, and it has not been restricted to TV's coverage of major speeches and debates. Every candidate for public office higher than student body president now has a media adviser. To ensure coverage by television news crews, candidates have been known to deliver their Ecology Position Papers at a popular swimming hole has been closed because of pollution or to announce their 14-point Economic Package in front of an abandoned factory. These are "good visuals" for television and stand a better chance of making the 6 o'clock news than a " visually uninteresting" recitation in a rented hall.

Nowhere is the compeition for television news coverage more intense than in a presidential primary campaign. This year, with 36 primaries in just 14 weeks, the importance of television -- advertising time as well as news coverage -- is overwhelming. Some candidates will end up spending more time in television studios than chatting with live voters. It is the only way of reaching large numbers of people in a state where a candidate has but 96 hours to campaign. Even so, the case in Iowa -- where apparently all the active candidates are buying expensive television time -- does seem a little extreme. Fewer than 30,000 people participated in the 1976 Republican caucus contest. It just might be cheaper and more effective to buy each voter a good steak dinner.

Most candidates are reluctant to talk at length about television. They would prefer to wax enthusiastic about the beauty of the primary state at hand or the industriousness of its people. But President Carter is an exception. In a recent interview with the Des Moines Register, he described his own desire to return to the campaign trail: "It would be good for me to go from one media center to another, to have press conferences, town hall meetings, to be seen shaking hands with factory workers and visiting a farmer and looking at his livestock with him."

With this single statement, President Carter retires the cup for Candidate Candor. Having watched the competition take advantage of all those photo opportunities and appearances on the local news shows, the president was frankly saying that he does not miss seeing Iowans quite as much as he misses Iowans' seeing him in Iowa. Of course, Iowans, like other Americans, have been watching him virtually every night on the network news, but apparently the old campaign instinct -- even in incumbent presidents -- yearns for the real thing: the "media center."