Washington — At a moment when a Carter-Reagan debate seems out of the question, a new approach holds out hope for such a confrontation. The League of Women Voters is thinking seriously of going ahead with a debate scheduled for Cleveland on Oct. 26 without any further reference to how the presidential candidates feel about participating.
The league believes it is in the public interest that such a debate be held -- that the candidates have not yet sufficiently delineated and clarified their stands on the issues.
Mrs. Ruth Hinerfeld, chair of the league, told a group of reporters over breakfast Oct. 14 that the "machinery is all set up" for a debate Oct. 26.
All that was needed, she indicated, was some formula whereby the contestants could be wooed into the encounter.
The league's plan, if carried out, would include the following elements:
1. The candidacy of independent John Anderson will be reassessed this week and the league will decide whether his current showing in the polls -- around 10 percent -- is high enough for him to be considered a "significant" candidate. If not, Mr. Anderson would not be included in the Cleveland debate.
2. The idea would be to set up the debate without any special regard to the news media, letting coverage take place simply at the option of the press. Public interest -- not the participants or the press -- would be the controlling factor. It would not be set up as a "media event."
3. If only one candidate showed up, there would be no debate. To question a lone participant, Mrs. Hinerfeld pointed out, would be unfair and violate "equal time" requirements on the broadcast media.
4. The inducement for the candidates' participation would be the timing -- almost on the eve of the election. What candidate, it is asked, would want to take the chance of not showing up?
At this point, the President does seem interested in such a debate -- if it is a one-to-one encounter with Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan does not. "The Reagan people would probably not take too kindly to this idea," Mrs. Hinerfeld says.
She emphasizes that it is almost impossible to set up a debate where all the participants see it as in their political interests to participate.
The league indicates its last-minute effort to rescue the debates is in response to public desire for this confrontation, as evidenced in the polls. 73 percent of the American people want a debate between Reagan and Carter, according to a survey of over 16,500 people in 11 states taken last week for the Global 2000 news service. 69 percent would like to see a three-way debate including Anderson. Thus if the league decides to go ahead with the debate -- without further consultation with candidates -- it will rest its decision on the conviction that it is following its role to serve the public's need to know.
Further, as Mrs. Hinerfeld points out, the league already has agreements from both Carter and Reagan to participate in one-to- one debates. Reagan has opposed a one-to-one with Carter (except as part of a round robin with Anderson) only as long as the league has considered Anderson as a "significant" candidate.
Now the league seems poised to say that Anderson no longer commands enough voter support to earn him participation in the debates.