A few months ago, the 1980 presidential campaign was shaping up as a classic battle of ideologies, a grand debate about the role of the federal government in America and a contest of ideas that would guide the country into the new decade.

It has become instead a scramble for the center, a strategy with ample precedent in presidential politics, and yet a disappointment for many voters. The experts will write it off as shrewd political strategy in a race that is extremely close, but it is also what is likely to keep this race tight until the end.

Neither President Carter nor Ronald Reagan has shown the confidence in his own ideas or the political security to risk a real campaign, and so the voters have become as passionless as the candidates, and the lack of enthusiasm that greeted these candidates in the latter days of the spring primary season seems likely to overwhelm the final days of the campaign.

Inevitably, the moment predominates. Reagan's up. Reagan's down. Anderson's down. Anderson's not down. Carter cannot win. Yes, he can. The conventional wisdom changes with the winds, and just as capriciously.

Yet there has been an underlying reality to the first full month of the campaign. September began with Carter calling Reagan a warmonger, with the candidates debating whether to debate, with John B. Anderson declaring that his candidacy is not dead. It ended the same way.

Predictably comes the complaint that the candidates are avoiding the issues, and, in the way Washington cares about issues, that is true. There are no debates great or small, about the details of federal policy. Occasionally, Anderson will talk about something like patent reform. Reagan or Carter will make a "major speech" on this topic or that, but there is no attempt on the part of the candidates to engage one another as members of some national debating school.

But the public will decide this election on broader terms, and the candidates have decided to attack one another on that larger plane. In that sense, they are debating the most fundamental of issues, and only the squeamish or those with narrow self-interest refuse to see it.

Carter and Reagan are fighting over character and competence. For Reagan, the issue is Carter's stewardship in office, and in particular his handling of the economy. It is the mooring to which he returns at every opportunity -- and the point Carter most studiously avoids. For Carter, the question is the character of his opponent: do you want Ronald Reagan at the center of power?

If you look at the campaign that way, you have to conclude that Carter won the first month. Admittedly, the president has been crude in his presentation of this question, and if enough people across the country see that as a flaw in Carter's character it will cost him dearly. On the other hand, as the old story goes, the 2-by-4 approach has gotten the mule's attention. In September, Carter did what his advisers felt he had to do: focus public attention on the question of whether his challenger is up to the job.

In this fall campaign, Reagan has been the big disappointment. Anyone who attended the Republican National Convention in Detroit in July couldn't help noticing how good the Republicans felt about their party.It was the party of change, the party of ideas, the party on the rise. And in Detroit, the convention managers went out of their way to showcase the rising young stars and celebrate the party's vision for America. It was, of course, a curious amalgam of good old Americana and what New York Rep. Jack Kemp, one of those stars, liked to call radical ideas to shove the economy off its stagnant behind.

Reagan had run successfully through the primaries with this banner in full view, but he has rolled it up in the fall campaign in favor of an electoral strategy that calls for him to be a moderate. Now he parades through the industrial heartland of the nation praising the Chrysler bailout, aid to New York City and other demons of his conservative past.

The chorus of political wise men who form the backdrop to the campaign chant approvingly of this pragmatic move, and it may even help Reagan win the White House. But his message this fall is more diffuse as he touches his new electoral bases, and his supposed argument with Carter over the president's competence is lost in the mist.

The candidates' debate over character and competence has cost the country dearly, for it has forced the campaign back into the safety of the center on almost every other point. Reagan now offers up a return to the Ford presidency, and Carter calls for four more years of his own. Neither is the choice that was promised when this long campaign begin in earnest in the snows of Iowa in January, nor is neither what Reagan or Carter truly believes would be good for the country.