Washington — It might be called ``The Great Debate Debate.'' Nearly a year before the first presidential primary, a cantankerous debate has begun over who will sponsor the campaign debates in 1988. The League of Women Voters, which has run most debates in the past, wants to sponsor a dozen of them throughout the election year. But the political parties have another idea. The Republican and Democratic party chairmen, who can seldom agree on anything, have shaken hands over a deal that says the two parties will sponsor the debates in 1988.
League president Nancy M. Neuman scoffs at that idea. She accuses the party chiefs of trying to turn the debates into ``pillow fights,'' without real substance.
She says the League will go right ahead with its schedule of 12 presidential debates, including eight during the primaries, no matter what the parties do. The parties counter that ``every'' major candidate for 1988, Democrat and Republican, has already agreed to take part in the party-sponsored debates in the fall.
The important factor, cheered by political experts, is that presidential debates are becoming a regular part of the American scene.
In 1988 voters should see several debates during the primaries between the full field of Republican and Democratic candidates. Then, in the fall, there may be as many as three presidential debates and a single vice-presidential debate.
Ms. Neuman calls debates a critical part of the educational process for voters - the only part of the campaign not ``managed'' by political consultants.
Does it really matter who sponsors the debates?
The leaders of both major parties agree with the League that it does.
Neuman charges that the parties would protect the candidates. The result, she says, would be two candidates who simply parrot ``canned campaign commercials for 90 minutes.'' She also says ``the public trusts the League'' to put on real debates.
The parties cite a study by the Commission on National Elections, a bipartisan group led by Democrat Robert Strauss and Republican Melvin Laird. The commission said in its 1986 report: ``American citizens have come to expect joint appearances by the major party nominees for the presidency. These joint appearances should be made a permanent part of the electoral process. ... The commission believes that this ... is most likely to take place if the two political parties assume direct responsibility for sponsoring the joint appearances.''
This week, Republican chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. and Democratic chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. announced creation of the Commission on Presidential Debates to fulfill that recommendation. The 10-member commission will be bipartisan, nonprofit, and tax exempt.
Mr. Fahrenkopf says it will need $1 million to sponsor as many as four debates in the fall of 1988. The Twentieth Century Fund, a research group, promptly contributed $25,000 to launch the project.
Mr. Kirk thanked the League of Women Voters for ``laying the foundation.''
Neuman countered in a press conference a few blocks away that there are five reasons the League of Women Voters should remain the sponsor: 1. The League has no stake in the outcome of the election. 2. It has experience. 3. Unlike the parties, the League would sponsor both the primary and general election debates, a ``complete package.'' 4. The League could better deal with third party candidates, like John Anderson in 1980. 5. The League can put pressure on reluctant candidates to debate.