Washington — A last-minute push is being launched to set up the much-debated presidential debate in the waning moments of the campaign. At the same time, the public demand for a debate appears to be growing. Reporters and politicians are finding that:
* Voters everywhere are saying they need a better idea of where the presidential candidates stand -- and the differences between them.
* There is a general feeling of disinterest in the candidates which, without a debate, may result in an exceedingly low election-day turnout.
* There is widespread criticism of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Both candidates now are perceived as ducking the debate for their own political reasons without any reference to the needs of the public.
The League of Women Voters is renewing its efforts for such a contest. "It's not too late," says Ruth Hinerfeld, chairwoman of the league.
A number of newspapers and columnists have issued new, urgent calls for a debate.
A senior Reagan aide told the Monitor Oct. 11 that Mr. Reagan still would not debate President Carter unless john Anderson were included -- "either in a three-way contest or in a round robin of one-on-one debates."
But a top administration aide, at the same time, said that the President "just might decide to take up Reagan on a debate that would include Anderson."
And a White House source said: "We're desperate to debate Reagan. No, I wouldn't say we are desperate. But we really want that debate. We simply have to shift the focus to Reagan, and the only way may be to debate Reagan on his terms."
But another administration source said of the possibility of Carter including independent Anderson in a debate: "I'm afraid that if we agree to that, it will make us look very desperate. I'm not sure it would be a good idea."
This same person added: "Anderson is dropping enough in the polls so that there's no reason why he should be included, any more than some of the other third-party candidates."
The league takes the position that the public will best be served now by having a one-on-one, Carter vs. Reagan debate.
"Because debates are even more critically needed now than before," Mrs. Hinerfeld says, "we stand ready to sponsor such a debate as a service to the voting public -- almost any time before the election."
But what if the President suddenly agrees to Reagan's demand for an Anderson-included debate?
There now is the possibility that Reagan would decline -- refusing to take the chance of looking bad in such a debate and thus of losing his apparent lead.
At the same time, should the President begin to close the gap, it seems very possible that Reagan would be willing to debate -- even one-on-one.
"We'll watch the figures," the senior Reagan aide told the Monitor.
All along Carter and Reagan spokesmen have continued to hold out hope that a debate would eventually be held. "Later on" was the usual forecast from both sides.
Now, "later on" is moving into the period of "now," and very soon it may well be "too late."
But the intensified public and news media pressure somehow yet may bring the debate about.