Cambridge, Mass. — Democratic presidential candidates are spending more and more time on college campuses these days and, in the process, reaching larger audiences. While some of the White House aspirants might be more comfortable in another setting or in a different format, all seven participants in the debate televised at Harvard University appeared pleased with their performances.
Unlike the Jan. 15 three-hour broad-ranging session at Dartmouth College, the question-and-answer agenda here was restricted to foreign policy and was half as long. And the tone of the Harvard debate was decidedly more cordial.
Rather than going after one another, as when John Glenn took on Walter F. Mondale at the earlier debate, the common focus of attack was on the Reagan administration's handling of international affairs.
Of the eight Democratic presidential contenders, only Reubin Askew was not on hand at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, due to a scheduling conflict.
Although there was little agreement as to what the exact level of United State defense spending should be and its direction, only Ernest F. Hollings appeared to favor an overall increase in spending on arms.
Gary Hart warned that too much is being spent on defense equipment that would not adequately protect the nation.
It's a ''candy-store approach - he (President Reagan) buys what he sees,'' Mr. Mondale charged in decrying the administration's military procurement stance.
Senator Hart held that the continued presence of US troops in Lebanon was a subject on which the candidates could agree. George McGovern asserted that ''our troops should have been taken out of Lebanon when it first became clear it was an impossible mission,'' long before the first Marine casualties.
On the arms control question, Alan Cranston charged that an opportunity to get a SALT II treaty (strategic arms limitation agreement) with the Soviet Union was muffed by the Carter administration. Senator Glenn, who voted against ratification of the treaty, said he did so because the United States could not accurately verify compliance. He criticized colleagues who supported the measure , saying that he was ''very surprised'' that they ''would trust the Soviet Union'' without such a protective arrangement.
Lashing out against the present administration's trade policies, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson suggested that much more be done to provide jobs for Americans.
More effort, he held, should be directed at improving the plight of the poor. ''Ending slums must be our new frontier, not space walks,'' he declared.
Instead of getting a crack at answering every question, or even most of them, individual presidential hopefuls were restricted to those questions directed specifically to them.
This arrangement led to a wider variety of topics, but at the same time made it impossible for the candidates to explain their stances on every issue.
About one-third of the program was given over to candidates' questioning each other.
Senator Hollings, for example, was asked what he would do should overtures of friendship be extended to the United States by the Cuban government. ''I would welcome it and bend over backwards in that direction,'' he responded, making it clear that any such overture would have to be accompanied by evidence of good faith on the Cuba's part, including the withdrawal of its forces from other nations.
Mr. Jackson, asked about resumption of a military draft, said he would not support such a move, even though it might make the military less dependent on minorities. The heavier enlistments of blacks, he said, stem from their being ''locked out of educational and job opportunities.''
Another Democratic candidate debate, this one zeroing in on their positions on women's issues, is set for Friday night at Boston's Emmanuel College. Although carried by Boston television stations, the Friday debate (as well as the Harvard one) will reach well into New Hampshire.
The Democratic aspirants may also appear together in Manchester, N.H., shortly before the Granite State's first-in-the-nation presidential primary Feb. 28.