When Adlai Stevenson accepted the Democratic nomination in 1952, in a speech that grows greater with the years, he said his concern was not just winning the election. It was how the election was won that mattered -- "how well," as he said, "we can take advantage of this great quadrennial opportunity to debate issues sensibly and soberly." He believed it would be better to lose than to mislead or misgovern the nation.

Stevenson saw the presidential campaign "as a great opportunity to educate and elevate a people whose destiny is leadership." Then, in a passage that established his basic rationale for running, he set out the stakes for presidential races that remain all the more valid today:

"Even more important than winning the nation is governing the nation," he said. "That is the test of a political party -- the acid, final test. When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an hour of history . . .Let's face it. Let's talk sense to the American people. Let's tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you're attacked, but a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man -- war, poverty and tyranny -- and the assults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each.

"Let's tell them that the victory to be won in the 20th Century, this portal to the golden age, mocks the pretensions of individual acumen and ingenuity. For it is a citadel guarded by thick walls of ignorance and mistrust which do not fall before the trumpets' blast or the politicans imprecations or even a general's baton. . . ."

It hardly needs to be said that Stevenson's hopes for a campaign that sensibly and soberly debates issues, that educates and elevates the people, are not being fulfilled in this fall of 1980. After moving across the country now, and after talking with hundreds of citizens in all walks of life, I admit to having a felling of rage about this campaign. I know that emotion is shared by many I have met.

I wonder if the candidates themselves are aware of the anger people feel about the way they are being treated -- by the slick phony political commercials with their cheap easy slogans that flit across the TV screens day and night; by the snippets of sound and fury, showing the candidates at a staged-for-the-camera event, that turn up on the news broadcasts and pass for serious examination of issues. I wonder if they realize how deeply people want to hear discussions about the economy and inflation, about energy and the environment, about international competition and tensions. I wonder if they realize the political peril they are in -- and rightly, too -- for not offering something better.

With such strong emotions arrayed against them, the winner of this campaign is virtually certain to have an even more difficult task in trying to govern the nation after the election.

What's even more dismaying is to see how all these feelings of frustration reinforce the negative cast of mind in the American public today. Perhaps the greatest disservice being done the people in this campaign is the reinforcement of the idea that it doesn't matter who wins. For in many respects, this election does represent fundamental differences over the direction of the nation at a crucial period.

Whether Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter sits in the White House makes a major difference in terms of judicial and regulatory appointments, the tone of government itself, the way the federal system operates in relation to states and local communities, and how the nation deals with its economic and foreign problems. This election also promises to be significant -- perhaps historic -- as far as the two political parties are concerned.

In the most provocative political analysis I've seen about the larger stakes before us, one knowledgeable observer sees this election as signaling the end of the Democratic Party's control over the White House for the rest of the century. In that reading, Jimmy Carter becomes the last Democratic president.

Horace Busby, who served Lyndon B. Johnson for 25 years as aide and confidant in Texas and Washington and who now operates a consulting firm in the capital, has come up with an arresting political thesis. c

"The desultory state of current campaign is deceiving," he believes. "Despite the image that nothing much is happening, it is the reality that, if the present trends continue, the outcome on Nov. 4 stands to change the nature of American politics for the balance of the century and longer."

Busby speaks of a "Republican lock" on the Electoral College that appears about to close in on the Democrats this year with effects lasting far into the future. "What is happening as of now," he says, "is what leaders of the Demcratic Party have feared -- and tried to fend off -- since the Republican Party returned to power with the Eisenhower victory in 1952. Eisenhower took much of the West away from the Democrats and made the first strong Republican penetration into the Solid South. On that base, Republicans have been accruing, virtually without note in political commentary, a larger and larger bloc of Electoral College votes likely to go only GOP."

Through the seven presidential campaigns since mid-century, the Busby analysis goes on, "most of the states have voted most of the time for the Republican candidate." He cites the following breakdown: 33 states have voted four or more times for Republicans in seven elections; 29 states have voted five or more times for the Republicans. Sixteen of the states have voted only once for a Democrat, and Arizona has voted for no Democrat since Harry Truman in 1948. Those 33 Republican states represent 316 electoral votes, or 46 more than the 270 majority needed to become president. Thus, the "Republican lock."

As Busby concludes: "If all Republican states remain Republican in the Electoral College, the interparty contest for the White House is inoperative: the Democratic Party cannot hope to win. The evidence strongly suggests that the 'lock' is about to close this year."

Busby sees the voting patterns established since the Eisenhower years likely to continue for years ahead. And, he says, "whether he wins or loses this year, Jimmy Carter could easily be the last Democratic president."

Confortable as it is for many Democrats to put the blame for this situation solely on Carter, Busby thinks that even if FDR were around the prospects would be about the same. "It is the party, not simply this president, which is in trouble," he says. "The hard-to-accept truth is that Democratic candidacies for the White House may no longer be viable."

That may be a major long-term stake in this election, but immediate ones are m ore pressing and important to citizens. It was a San Diego cab driver, a black man named Leonard Jason, who expressed what I can attest is a universal feeling about this campaign. "In 53 years I've never seen such little enthusiasm about the presidential race. Hey, man, you a reporter? You got to get on these guys running, make 'em debate the issues. We're on the razor's edge now. Things are too serious to let 'em get away with the way they're running."

Amen, Mr. Jason. My sentiments exactly.