Like many voters this year, we find ourselves discouraged by the negative tone and lack of content in this presidential contest. One man is running an inept campaign. The other's is abhorrent. We are caught between the metronome-like pronouncements of Gov. Michael Dukakis and the irrelevancies of Vice President George Bush. Why endorse? Why vote?

But history has never dealt kindly with those who remain neutral in times of crisis. And we believe this nation in the next four years will face critical choices. It makes a difference who the next president will be.

For the last two months, this newspaper has examined the issues that will confront the next administration, from the staggering budget deficits that threaten our economic well-being to the unprecedented opportunity offered by new leadership in the Soviet Union; from the challenges of caring for the least fortunate in an equitable and affordable way and meeting the needs of the new American family, to the devastating effects of man's behavior on this planet's air, water and resources.

Dukakis and Bush represent different approaches to these problems, and they offer different priorities. Ultimately our choice has to be based on who we believe can better deal with these challenges.

We suspect - we fervently hope - that both are better than their abysmal campaigns would indicate. At the very least, both strike us as serious men who have devoted their adult lives to public service and the art of governing.

George Bush has run the more effective campaign. He has gone from underdog to front runner in just three months. But what is the correlation between the ability to run a campaign and the ability to govern the nation? It's a question we have asked ourselves many times in the last weeks.

Certainly there's some overlap. Communicating is an essential part of governing as well as campaigning. Bush has gotten his message across. Dukakis hasn't.

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But effective as Bush's campaign has been, it has also been sniveling, dirty, distorted and irresponsible - appealing to the worst instincts of the American people. He has written the definitive book on how to run a negative presidential campaign, but there is not a single chapter about the future of this country, nary a word about his vision.

Bush's vow not to raise taxes in any way, shape or form is an act of political folly, cynical and downright demagogic at a time when the federal budget deficit is more than $ 150 billion. Add to that Bush's spineless subservience to the Pentagon, and you have a formula for fiscal disaster. Asked twice in two debates to name the military programs he would cut, Bush listed three that had already been eliminated and one Army truck program. That's not funny.

The military budget deserves at least as much scrutiny as any program in the budget. There is no indication Bush would provide it. If we believed Bush had the guts to deal with the towering deficits, it might be a persuasive reason for support. But he has as much as said he won't. We strongly suspect that Dukakis will be tougher on this issue. He is manager enough - and stubborn enough - to make Congress control spending.

Bush's choice of Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate shows judgment as poor as his no-tax pledge. Quayle isn't qualified to be president. Whatever possessed Bush to name this featherweight remains a mystery to us. For many, this alone is reason to vote against Bush.

Unexplained, too, after all these months is Bush's role in the Iran-contra affair. We witnessed a fascist-style attempt by a small group of zealots to take over the national security apparatus of our government. Where was Bush, the former Central Intelligence Agency chief? Where was his judgment?
Big Resume, No Growth

Indeed, this goes to the heart of our problems with the vice president. He has an impressive resume - CIA director, congressman, Republican Party chairman, ambassador to the United Nations and China. But there is no evidence he has grown in any of his jobs. He seems a man of predictable ambitions and borrowed convictions. In 1980, he called Ronald Reagan's economic plans "voodoo economics." Now he runs as a Reaganomics zealot.

And he leaves no imprint where he has been or any indication that he will challenge authority or question conventional wisdom. As the head of the president's South Florida Task Force on Drugs, he could have spearheaded an effort on the most politically explosive issue of the day.

Yet there is little sign of effort, no evidence of accomplishment.

We are also concerned that Bush has isolated himself from the press during the campaign. If he is that way now, imagine what he would be like in the White House. Disaster lurks for presidents who grow out of touch - and Bush starts out that way.

Finally, we must question Bush's sensitivity to the concerns of those of us who live in dense urban and suburban settings, who must deal every day with the problems of drug abuse, AIDS, poverty, inadequate housing, traffic congestion, water and air pollution. We haven't seen much of Bush in New York, and we fear that is a harbinger of his presidency.

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We wish that Dukakis had given us more reason to support him. He is a tightly controlled man, obviously intelligent, but his grasp of the issues smacks too much of mandarin mastery, lacking the instinct and vision that makes for a compelling leader. Instead of being dynamic, he seems smug, and when challenged, he recoils. He has taken a pounding from Bush, but where is his fight?

Still, on the issues we've defined as critical, he offers the better, more realistic solutions. He is willing to question defense spending and recognizes that housing, medical care and civil rights are issues that the federal government cannot ignore. He hasn't boxed himself into a corner on the issue of taxes. At a time when resources will be tight, we believe he is likely to allocate them more wisely.
A Chance for New Thinking

If the issue is the art of governing - the ability to bring people together and get things accomplished - Dukakis offers the most hope, the most potential.

Although Dukakis has tried to avoid the liberal label, he strikes us as a New Liberal: sensitive to the traditional concerns but aware of the limits of government in dealing with them. In Massachusetts, he has been innovative, forging partnerships with private enterprise to accomplish his goals. His health insurance program is a model for the nation, and he has been aggressive on environmental issues. His proposals on aid to college students and funding for nursing homes are creative, intelligent responses to the era of fiscal restraint.
In foreign affairs, Dukakis seems far less constrained by the Cold War mentality and far more ready to meet Gorbachev halfway. There is an opportunity for restructuring the world, for creating a new set of diplomatic relations from the Orient to the Mideast. Dukakis offers the chance for new thinking.

In private sessions, we found him to be animated, well-informed and tough-minded. In Dukakis, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will have a worthy adversary across the table.
We have no doubt that Dukakis' Supreme Court and federal court appointees will be in the mainstream of U.S. political thinking. In contrast, we fear Bush will cave in to the far right wing of his party. And after eight years of scandal, we think it's time for a change.

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No, this isn't a happy choice. But when all the factors are weighed - from Quayle and the Supreme Court to Iran-contra and the deficit - the choice becomes surprisingly clear.

Newsday endorses Michael Dukakis for president of the United States.