Primary debates . . .

The presidential nomination race is longer by far than ever. But the candidates still tend to blur together. The process as it exists does not allow voters to differentiate among candidates clearly enough. A series of major-issue debates, in the weeks leading up to the primaries, is needed.

The American democracy has no greater job than to choose its public leaders. This is so even though the long process can test the voters' patience. Many Americans do not tune in to elections until after the summer conventions, or after Labor Day, and a sizable number not until the last moment in the voting booth - while others who claim they are ''undecided'' actually have long since made up their minds but choose to disguise it.

The fact is, the first presidential nomination event is just 16 weeks away. It is approaching more rapidly than many of us may choose to appreciate. And while the candidates for the contested party nomination, the Democrats, are getting public exposure - from movie reviews and fund-raising reports - it hardly seems to be the kind that will push voters toward a discriminating decision.

Some catalyst - possibly a regional grilling of candidates on major themes like the economy, social issues, defense, and foreign affairs - would help to crystallize the public's views. This should occur in the period before the primaries start, since once balloting begins, the dynamics of the campaign itself - ''momentum,'' financial reserves, media impressions - take over.

If Mr. Reagan should choose not to run, debates on the Republican side would be all the more crucial, given the shorter time GOP candidates would have to prepare.

The House Democratic Caucus is considering such a series of regional debates or forums and is negotiating with candidates. The Des Moines Register plans a pre-Iowa caucus debate. The League of Women Voters has scheduled two candidate debates close to the primary season - one in Manchester, N.H., in February, the other in Atlanta in March. But these might be carried only locally. Broadcasters are petitioning the Federal Communications Commission for permission to hold their own debates - likely skipping the independent, nonprofit sponsorship of groups like the League of Women Voters. Independent sponsors complain the latter would focus too much power in the hands of the already powerful broadcast media. Some combination of the above events would greatly help the voting public.

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