In the course of a misspent 20 years on the political trail, I have attended dozens of Democratic dinners where the drunken din was such that no one, including the speaker, had any idea what was being said.

Hubert H. Humphrey had standard advice for other Democrats going to such notoriously besotted affairs as the Philadelphia or New Jersey dinners. "You say, 'Buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt! Buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz -- Harry S. Truman! Buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz -- John Fitzgerald Kennedy!'" Humphrey advised. "And then you get the hell out of there before they start throwing rolls at each other."

Last Satuday night, I was at a Democratic dinner here where you could hear a pin drop. Sen. John C. Culver (D-Iowa), who is locked in a tough, close reelection campaign against Rep. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), was winding up his speech to the party faithful in a rather remarkable way.

Instead of the standard Humphrey-style pep talk, he was talking about arms control and the importance of reviving -- not discarding -- the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviet Union. And he was doing it not by reciting data on warheads and throwing weights, but by reading a Japanese woman's recollections of her experiences, as a young girl, on the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Listening to the terrifying description of the effect of fire, blast and radiation on human flesh, written 30 years ago by that Japanese woman, now filling a basketball arena in the amplified voice of the former Marine and Harvard fullback, brought the hundreds of Democratic revelers to sudden silence -- and full attention.

It was a dramtic example of what could be sensed everywhere on the campaign trail last week: America is getting serious about this election. After all the demeaning distractions, the voters and candidates alike are finally beginning to sense what is at stake.

There was a similar experience earlier in the week, when Ronald Reagan toured the largely shut-down Jones and Laughlin steel complex in Youngstown, Ohio. Without impugning any motives, it's a safe bet that the visit was scheduled simply to provide a telegenic setting for another Reagan blast at the regulatory and economic policies of Jimmy Carter's administration.

But the reality overwhelmed the theatrics. Candidate and correspondents drove through acre after acre of rusting, abandoned buildings -- looking a bit like war ruins themselves -- that symbolized America's decaying technological and industrial strength.

And when Reagan met with some of the remaining workers in the plant, they turned out to be not extras provided by a Hollywood rent-a-blue-collar-crowd agency, but worried men with probing questions about the candidate's readiness to commit government funds to the rehabilitation of this aging plant.

Like the diners in Des Moines and millions of others across the land, they are remembering, now that the moment of decision is approaching, that there are terribly consequential choices to be made by the next president, by the senators and by the others to be elected next month.

The press -- which has gotten its share of criticism for the trivialization of the campaign -- is also getting the message. James P. Gannon, the executive editor of the Des Moines Register, reprinted in his own paper a speech he'd made, criticizing the campaign coverage and suggesting that "instead of being content to serve up only the charge and countercharge of the campaign trail, we can pose the questions that the candidates should be answering, and explain to the readers why the answers aren't as simple as the candidates' TV ads suggest."

Putting his doctrine into practice, Gannon has been running a series of front-page articles on the issues. Similar pieces are beginning to appear in papers from coast to coast. The Associated Press, our largest news organization, did a Reagan interview recently that focused more sharply on the thrust of his policies than anything that has appeared since the conventions.

If Reagan and Carter are smart, they will sense this changing mood -- and do the one thing that, more than any other, can still redeem this campaign from travesty: they will meet face-to-face for a serious discussion of these issues.

They can do it themselves, with or without the blessing of John Anderson or the League of Women Voters. Bob Strauss and Jim Baker could agree in one phone call on a date, a site and a neutral moderator. Without the distraction of a phony panel of press questioners, Carter and Reagan could sit down for two hours to talk seriously about where this country is and where it should be going.

American's are ready to listen.