Cambridge, Mass. — Arms control will not emerge as the deciding issue in the Democratic primaries. That was made apparent by the seven candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination during their recent debate on arms control at Harvard University.
But the nuclear arms issue is almost certain to occupy center stage when the Democrats turn their attention to Reagan administration policy and expected Republican candidate Ronald Reagan.
The candidates spent much of the hour-long, nationally broadcast debate telling viewers how different each of their positions are on arms control. In fact, all but Reubin Askew say they would support a nuclear weapons freeze. A number of the candidates denounced the deployment of multiwarhead missile systems, the MX missile program, and the development of the B-1 bomber.
Front-runners Walter F. Mondale and John Glenn used the occasion to continue a verbal sparring match over Senator Glenn's 1979 opposition to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II).
Mr. Mondale said that the failure of SALT II was a grave mistake. Glenn responded later in the debate, saying he had opposed it because the United States was unable at the time to adequately monitor Soviet compliance with the accord. ''I saw it couldn't be monitored. We were blind as far as SALT II went, '' Glenn said.
Later, Glenn retaliated by asking former Vice-President Mondale if certain policy initiatives of the Carter administration were consistent with his positions today. Glenn cited the sale of F-15 fighters to Saudi Arabia, delivery of nuclear materials to India, and the Soviet grain embargo. Mondale, in turn, replied that he had been a voice for moderation in the Carter White House.
The debate, cosponsored by the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Massachusetts Coalition for Arms Control, initially attracted the candidates' interest partly because the regional television coverage in Boston would overlap into most of New Hampshire - where the crucial first primary election will be held March 8. The Oct. 13 event, however, gained national attention when the TV coverage was picked up and broadcast live by stations in more than two dozen cities, potentially reaching as many as one-fourth of all American homes.
A sample of the candidates' remarks:
Mr. Askew said a nuclear freeze would put all the pressure on the US in arms talks with the Soviets.
Alan Cranston called a nuclear arms accord ''the overriding issue of our time.''
Gary Hart said he would work to reverse what he calls the ''most dangerous trend toward deployment of (multiwarhead) systems.''
Ernest F. Hollings said, ''We are overprepared for nuclear war and underprepared for conventional war.'' He says he would call for a reduction of up to 1,500 warheads.
George McGovern called for a 25 percent reduction in the defense budget. He said he would begin negotiations by revising SALT II, which he called ''a moderate step in the right direction.'' There is no practical use for nuclear weapons other than as a deterrent, he said.