The presidential campaign came late to Ohio this year, but at the Dayton Daily News it began eight months ago.

The paper put its hat into the ring last Oct. 24, when the 36-year-old city editor, Brad Tillson, sent a detailed memo to managing editor Joe Fenley outlining a plan for covering the election year.

"The goal of our coverage," Tillson wrote to his boss, "should be not only to tell our readers who the candidates are and what they are saying and doing, but to provide the readers with some insight into the nature of the candidates, their organizations, the people around them and the system itself.

"We should strive for a balance of breaking news and candidate coverage, and enterprise (that is self-initiated) profiles, behind-the-scenes and issues pieces. . . ."

The Daily News' ambitions for covering the 1980 campaign, the people who articulated and then tried to fulfill them, the editors' decisions on whom to endorse and how -- all these elements contribute to a story of modern newspaper journalism in the American heartland.

The Dayton Daily News was founded in 1898 by James M. Cox, later a governor of Ohio and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1920. The Daily News now sells 140,000 copies each afternoon, 220,000 on Sunday.

In a city of 200,000 and a metropolitan area of slightly more than half a million, this is what newspaper publishers call "good penetration" of the market. The Daily News has a deserved reputation for covering the news more seriously than the average small city daily paper, and an editorial policy regarded as "liberal" in town and "progressive" by the editors.

The Daily News' competition is the Morning Journal Herald, owned by the same management (the Cox chain, with headquarters in Atlanta) but with a separate and highly competitive news and editorial staff.

The seven-page memo last October from the city editor to the managing editor glowed with high ambition and professional pride.

"I strongly recommend that we not limit our coverage . . . to Ohio," city editor Tillson wrote. "I recommend we staff several out-of-state primaries. This will . . . afford us an opportunity to bring our own brand of political reporting and editing to this story during its early, and perhaps decisive, stage. It will establish the credibility of our reporters, both with our readers and with the candidates and their campaign organizations. . . ."

In an interview here last week, the serious-minded city editor acknowledged that "some people around here think I'm too political."

"Most readers don't read political stories no matter how good they are," he said, "just because they're political stories." He does see public interest in "personal stories about the candidates," and also in man-on-the-street reaction to politics, but much of the rest of it is published out of professional pride and a sense of responsibility, Tillson said.

In the Daily News city room, Tillson holds the preeminent role on political stories. The managing editor accepted most of his proposals, including expensive staff coverage of the primaries in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. The ideas for "enterprise" stories that the Daily News publishes come almost entirely from Tillson. The two reporters assigned full time to politics this year both take all their cues from the city editor.

Tillson obviously enjoys the power. He is a dedicated newspaperman, "a workaholic," according to several colleagues, who routinely puts in 10-hour days. He grew up in New England, attended college in Ohio, served in the Navy and worked as a reporter in Charlotte, N.C. before joining the Daily News in 1971.

As city editor, Tillson was able to hire has own successor as the paper's Columbus bureau chief. The occupant of this position is also the Daily News' principal political writer. Tillson hired a close friend, Jim Ripley

Ripley has never lived in Dayton. He grew up on an Ohio farm in Rockford, however, and studied political science and journalism at Ohio State. He worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, then as a reporter for the Columbus Citizen-Journal and then the Scripps Howard papers in Columbus from 1972-76. He joined the Daily News in 1977.

Ripley has an excellent reputation both in Columbus and with his bosses in Dayton.

Arnold Rosenfeld, editor of the Daily News, calls him "the best political reporter in the state." Though not yet a graceful writer, Ripley is a smart, aggressive reporter, admired by colleagues and sources. His ambition is to cover national politics, perhaps first for the Cox newspaper chain. He is proud that Cox has asked him to write daily reports for the chain's afternoon papers from this summer's Republican National Convention in Detroit.

Over a lasagna dinner cooked by his wife, Pam, at their house in Columbus, Ripley talked about being a political writer. "I don't spend a lot of time theorizing" about political journalism, he admitted. "I just don't have time." Ideas and suggestions usually come from Tillson in Dayton, he said

Ripley is frustrated by television's influence, because he knows that "most people form their opinions from what they see on television," but "all they're getting is the surface of events" on the tube. He is also furstrated by "media events" in a campaign, organized hoopla that reporters find themselves writing about just as the candidates hoped they would. But his ambitions for his own journalism are not complicated: "I guess I'm a little bit of a purist -- I see the reporter's role as chronicling what's going on."

The Daily News is a small paper with a small staff. According to Carl Beyer, who has been its news editor (responsible for laying out the paper each day) for 15 years, the amount of space devoted to news in the Daily News has declined 50 percent in the last decade, 25 percent in the past five years. Only two reporters on the staff write full-time about politics, both young men in their early 30s.

The political news in the Daily News usually consists of reports on set-piece events, particularly visits to Ohio by the candidates. In-depth reporting on the candidates is, rare, on issues all but non-existent.

Nevertheless, the Daily News has done some resourceful and interesting articles during this political season. The paper ambitiously sent Ripley and reporter David Dykes to write about the New Hampshire and Pennsylvania primaries. It set up a group of Dayton voters to meet once a week during 1980 to discuss the presidential campaign as a way to keep track of public attitudes. Most effectively, the paper has published a series of pieces called "Mood of the Voters," most of these written by Reply, that have nicely captured the frustration and dismay of ordinary citizens during this election year.

At its best the Daily News has been genuinely informative. Its "focus group" of Dayton voters revealed before the national polls did how Edward M. Kennedy blew an early advantage over President Carter, then how the president frittered away the enormous advantage he won in his own popularity from the Iran and Afghanistan crises. The paper has captured the national mood in its interviews with voters, and has covered a nice sense of the Kennedy campaign.

But the Daily News is not always at its best. Like virtually all the news media about issues. It has told its readers very little about the major candidates' campaign organizations in Dayton or in the state. Its reporting on the candidates has not included thorough investigations of their past performances in earlier jobs. The paper has wasted a lot of space (as have most papers) on stories repeating candidates' past stump speeches, or assessing the "horse race" among candidates at various stages.

By tradition, the Dayton Daily News editorial page endorses a candidate in every contested election that Dayton's voters are asked to resolve. This year the paper endorsed George Bush in the Republican primary for president, and Jimmy Carter in the Democratic.

The first choice was easy for an editorial board that considers itself "progressive" and finds Ronald Reagan a distasteful figure. In one editoriial last week, the Daily News noted that a woman cited as a possible running mate for Reagan, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), had declared herself unqualified for the job. "Perfect," editorialized the Daily News, "a compatible running mate" for Reagan.

The decision to endorse Carter came much more painfully. Tom Teepen, who has edited the Daily News' editorial page since 1967, said he and his colleagues had been Carter supporters for most of the president's term, but had become disilllusioned in recent months. Rosenfeld, the editor in chief, had raised the idea of perhaps witholding an endorsement from Carter or Edward M. Kennedy, and suggesting instead that Daily News readers write in the name of Sen. John Glenn as a native son who could perhaps keep the Democratic convention an open affair.

That idea lasted only until Teepen did a little research, and discovered that it was impossible to write in any name on an Ohio primary ballot. After more agonizing, the Daily News published an editorial that began:

"The Democratic convention in August should open itself to potential nominees other than Jimmy Carter or Edward Kennedy."

The editorial went on to say that "of the two, the president is the better bet," but that "Carter would carry a heavy burden into the general election -- his record."

This compromise took some days to work out. Rosenfeld and Teepen both acknowledge good naturedly that they doubt their endorsement has much impact. "I need only look at the roster of public officials to be pretty well persuaded that our influence is limited," Teepen puts it. But this did not diminish their determination to hash out the issue carefully.

The purveyors of news never satify all their customers, as any journalist can attest. The Daily News in Dayton, rather like The Post in Washington, has a reputation for liberalism that the reporters and editors inisist isn't justified, but which sticks in many parts of the community.

Last week that reputation was in evidence in Ronald Reagan people knew why -- the Daily News did not print anything about his arrival.

City editor Tillson agreed that nothing was published Wednesday about Reagan's arrival, but insisted this was standard procedure. "We don't print the schedule, like a parade," he said, nothing that a weekend ago the Daily News reported that Reagan would be visiting the city.