WASHINGTON — If you’re among those who believe the news media have focused too much on the presidential horse race and the personalities of the candidates — and not enough on vital issues of state — let me submit that you’re wrong.

I’m not saying that coverage of the campaign thus far has been flawless, mind you. There have been errors of judgment, sins of omission and missed opportunities; there have been instances in which much was adone about nothing. And I’m sure there’s more of the above to come.

But there has been no neglect of the issues. Perhaps it seems that way because on matters of real substance — the war in Iraq, the war on terror, the economy, health care — neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have seen much internal disagreement. The two parties have strikingly different positions on all these issues. Within the parties, though, the major candidates have all been pretty much on the same page.

After 20 debates, where do Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton differ on the issues? On Tuesday night in Cleveland, they argued passionately about universal health care — whether or not it’s necessary to impose a mandate requiring all Americans to buy health insurance. For 16 minutes, moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams — hardly a couple of wallflowers — could hardly get a word in.

It sounded like a genuine disagreement on policy, until you stepped back and realized that the colloquy was wholly theoretical. The candidates’ dispute was over the possible contours of a program that does not now exist. I’m not saying the difference between the two health care plans is meaningless, just that it’s not as important as the fundamental issue of whether to aim for universal health insurance (the Democrats’ position) or not (the Republicans’).

On Iraq, the argument is over the fact that Clinton voted for the measure authorizing the war, while Obama — who, as an Illinois state legislator, was in no position to vote one way or the other — opposed the war from the start. But that happened five and a half years ago. I’ve tried, but I can’t see any difference between how Clinton says she’ll get us out of Iraq and how Obama says he’ll get us out of Iraq. The real distinction is between getting us out (the Democrats’ position) or keeping us in (the Republicans’).

That’s why personality, with all its components, is so important this year. I would argue that it was decisive in the Republican primaries and caucuses. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and all the rest (except Ron Paul) sounded as belligerent as John McCain on national security issues. But McCain, because of his history and his manner, was much more credible as the kind of warrior-president Republicans seem to think we need.

On the Democratic side, the question is who would be more likely to achieve the party’s ambitious agenda. To make the choice, Democrats have to decide who is more likely to beat McCain. They also have to decide whose approach is more likely to succeed — Clinton’s ground-level diligence in Washington or Obama’s attempt to forge popular consensus beyond the Beltway.

To determine any of this, voters need to know who the candidates are, where they came from, what they believe, how they react under pressure. They need to know, to the extent possible, what makes the candidates tick. Exposing as many facets as possible of the personalities of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain is about the most important thing the media could be doing.

And as for allegedly paying too much attention to the horse race, come on. Who could pretend to ignore a race like this one? Why would anyone want to feign inattention? I can’t see how anyone could be remotely interested in the campaign for the presidency without also being curious as to who, at any given time, might be winning.

I have to acknowledge, though, that there’s one issue we’ve probably been underplaying — and I think it’s really the most important issue of all. Did you hear George W. Bush’s news conference Thursday? When asked about worsening relations between the United States and Russia, the leader of the free world described recent sharp disagreements as “some head-butts, diplomatic head-butts.”

I know that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a big-time football fan, but I hope she hasn’t been going helmet-to-helmet with her Russian counterpart.

Head-butts. The biggest issue is how to survey and repair all the damage Bush has done to the United States and its position in the community of nations, the least of which is his drive-by mugging of the diplomatic lexicon.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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