"It wasn't really going to be a debate or anything about what they would serve at a state dinner. Hopefully, it would be a discussion that might take off and generate some disagreement," said Warren Steibel, producer of PBS' "Firing Line," moderated by William F. Buckley. "It would give us the opportunity to compare them with each other."

By Feb. 19, however, Joanne Kemp, Jeanne Simon, Tipper Gore and Lee Hart were the only ones still on the list to appear on a scheduled two-hour "Firing Line" special on presidential candidates' wives.

"We didn't think that was what we had offered," Steibel said yesterday, explaining the resulting decision to cancel the show, which had been set for Saturday night in Columbia, S.C.

What had seemed a sure thing in January when a "debate" by potential first ladies was announced had all but disintegrated. The ballot box had taken its toll in New Hampshire, scheduling conflicts had forced out a couple of wives and indecisive campaign staffs had kept Steibel dangling until the last minute.

Barbara Bush had been quick and up front about her participation. In a word, "no." And the reason? "She's not running for office," her staff spokeswoman said yesterday.

He didn't hear regrets from Elizabeth Dole's staff until Feb. 19.

Getting an answer from Kitty Dukakis' people wasn't easy either, which reminded Steibel of another encounter, when he was arranging for Mike Dukakis to appear on an earlier "Firing Line."

"They woke me up one morning to make sure we had bread and cheese in the dressing room," Steibel said. "Buckley told the guy later, 'It was wonderful you woke up Steibel -- he was so worried he wouldn't get up in time to get the cheese.' "

The Dukakis staff apparently had other concerns for Kitty, who reportedly is a "morning person."

"One of them asked me, when I told her the show was for two hours, 'What if she has to go to the bathroom?' " Steibel said.

Which is why, he said, he was quoted in a USA Today story as saying about the cancellation: "They must have been afraid they wouldn't show off well. Maybe they were afraid they would have to sit there for two hours without going to the bathroom -- I don't know."

Yesterday, Steibel elaborated:

"That's not the way it works in television," he said by phone from his "Firing Line" control room in New York. "I don't take guests to the bathroom, you know, and say -- "

And then a voice in the background prompted, "Say 'micturate' now."

The height of one-upmanship at the March 26 Gridiron Dinner will be when one guest turns to another to say how familiar everything tastes -- meaning that the last time he/she ate it was at the White House when the Reagans entertained Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev.

Capital Hilton Hotel chef Brian Tossel, after conferring with White House chefs, has come up with a menu of Columbia River salmon and lobster medallions en gele'e with caviar sauce, loin of veal with wild mushrooms, medley of garden greens with brie cheese and crushed walnuts and tea sorbet in honey ice cream.

What won't be the same are the chocolate and caramel sauces, which the dinner committee will name Sauce Nancy and Sauce Raisa.

Nancy Reagan told the opening session of the White House Conference for a Drug-Free America yesterday that she won't give up her fight against illicit drugs when her husband leaves the White House next year.

"You're not going to lose me," she said in her keynote speech. "In fact, I'll be actively involved in the Nancy Reagan Center in Los Angeles, to be run by Phoenix House."

Quiet efforts to establish a center have been underway for some time by an ad hoc group of Reagan friends and supporters, including Richard Helms, the former ambassador to Iran and CIA director who heads the Nancy Reagan Drug Abuse Fund out of Washington.

Still in the planning stages, the center could be housed in an existing facility or built from scratch. Whichever the case, Mrs. Reagan said it will include a residential high school for young people in treatment, a drug counseling training unit and a research unit.

"I hope the center will become a place where we can develop new methods, test new approaches and discover new answers," she said.

Phoenix House has four facilities in New York state and six in California. Mrs. Reagan has visited several of them in the seven years her husband has been president.

To television viewers watching Nancy Reagan yesterday and who may have thought she loved red so much that she dyed her hair to match, the White House has offered a possible explanation: spotlights that weren't color-corrected for video.

A birthday bash for The Kiplinger Washington Letter is set for March 22 at the Capital Hilton, and coming to town to help celebrate this 65-year milestone will be at least two former presidents -- Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford -- with the possibility of a third, Richard Nixon.

Editor in Chief Austin Kiplinger, who took over that post from his father in 1961, has come up with a twist on gifts. Instead of receiving them, The Washington Letter will be giving them -- a $100,000 grant to the library of each of the ex-presidents.