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Now for more debates

One down, and an eternity to go. With the Iowa extrevaganza behind them, American voters face seven months and almost 40 primaries before the first presidential candidate for November officially gets his party's bumper sticker. If anything besides a tattered political score card is to be salvaged at the end , it is the education of the public -- and the politicians -- in the issues of most importance to the nation.

Nothing serves this educational process quite like confronting opposing candidates with the issues on the same platform. The League of Women Voters is again doing a major public service by arranging such meetings. It should have every support for its recently announced series of candidate forums during the primary season, followed by debates between the November contenders.

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One possible snag is the temptation of politicians to avoid exposing themselves to this kind of comparison if they don't have to. Why should a front-runner bother? Why should anyone take the time if there is no obvious political payoff? The league frankly needs enough display of public interest in the forums to make an invitation to them the kind of offer a candidate can't refuse.

At the same time, the league's education fund, which sponsors the program, needs money. It does not want to take contributions from the corporate PACs (political action committees), because these are set up to allow partisan political support -- and the fund properly regards the forums and debates not as partisan but as educational. It is permitted financing by individuals, trusts, and unincorporated bodies. It needs the kind of direct funding which corporations, unions, and foundations can give to educational enterprises but which has been in doubt for the forums under federal election regulations.

Fortunately, such funding appears possible under revised regulations sent to Congress last month. With the return of the legislators, these will go into effect in 30 days unless rejected.

The date almost coincides with the first scheduled forums just a week before the New Hampshire primaries. They will take place in Manchester, N.H. -- Democrats on Feb. 19, Republicans on Feb. 20. Then will come Chicago, March 12 (D) and 13 (R); Houston, April 22 (D) and 23 (R); and San Francisco, May 27 (R) and 28 (R). The Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio will carry at least the Manchester forums live. Full plans, participants, and broadcast details have not yet been announced.

One known change from the 1976 primary forums is that each regional meeting will not be focused on a single issue. This should be all to the good. For the educational value of such meetings lies not only in the exploration of given issues but in the surfacing of which issues are genuinely important. The more the forums are arranged so that the public can discover what is important to the candidates -- and the candidates cannot escape what is important to the public -- the better they should be.


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