Washington — When President Carter returns to the campaign trail, he will likely favor the town meeting or small- group, people-to-people format over presidential debates.
Campaign aides have been stressing this possibility, even while saying invitations to debate in New Hampshire and elsewhere have not been declined.
A New Hampshire "town meeting" or other assembly, but not a debate, appears likely before that state's key Feb. 26 primary.
Carter strategists and longtime Carter watchers conclude the President prefers the more controllable, friendlier town meeting format. Such gatherings would better fit the President's current "Oval Office" strategy, they say, with its limited press exposure and removal from direct campaign combat.
"We have maintained from early on that President Carter feels the town meeting has been beneficial in providing access to him," says Linda Peek, Carter- Mondale campaign spokeswoman.
"He does well at town meeting question-and-answer sessions," says Robert Keefe, an adviser to the Carter campaign who has helped host key Carter-Mondale events. "He does better with them than with a set speech."
The President's advisers reason a town meeting would enable him to be responsive to the public's questions, while not engaging in "divisive, partisan" debate at a time of national crisis.
Mr. Carter has vacillated on the debate question for much of his political career, says Betty Glad, Carter historian at the University of Illinois whose book, "Jimmy Carter: in Search of the Great White House," will be published next fall.
When he ran for the Georgia governorship in 1970, Mrs. Glad points out, the challenged former Gov. Carl Sanders, a heavy favorite in the Democratic primary, to debate. Surprisingly, Mr. Carter led the field in the primary, and in the runoff he "kept finding excuses to put off Sanders' bid for a debate." But in the general election, where Mrs. Glad says "a Republican never wins the governorship in Georgia," he consented to a debate.