Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, calling political debates the "music of democracy," challenged Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer today to meet him face to face for a series of debates on the issues that confront the two men in the Democratic race for governor.

Sachs, speaking at a news conference here, released several letters sent by his campaign to Schaefer -- the latest dispatched today -- asking for public debates with the mayor, and said that Schaefer had ducked more than 20 possible joint appearances in recent months.

"My challenge [to Schaefer] is to stop the pretense that he is not a candidate for governor," said Sachs, "to stop the games, to stop the tease and acknowledge what everyone knows, that he and I are candidates for governor . . . . In order to win that prize . . . you have to face your opponent on the field of battle."

Sachs' criticisms of his opponent in the Sept. 9 primary came on a day when the state League of Women Voters announced that it might not sponsor a debate until after the Democratic primary, a position that Schaefer endorsed this afternoon.

"I think they're right in that," said Schaefer as he arrived for a ceremonial function at the Baltimore Convention Center. "Whether or not we'll stand side by side, I don't know."

"Standing up before a television or a group and answering questions and having bells ringing after about two minutes, that doesn't solve problems," said Schaefer, who said the public is well aware of his record as mayor for 14 years.

The mayor, who is expected to declare his candidacy in about two weeks, also criticized Sachs for spending so much time campaigning "for 3 1/2 years" that he had failed to prevent a financial crisis in the state-regulated savings and loan industry that toppled several thrift associations in the last year.

Schaefer, who taped his brief interview with reporters on his personal tape recorder, said that Sachs had "found out about" the thrift crisis "the same time the governor did," an apparent reference to an October 1984 memo sent to Gov. Harry Hughes warning him of problems in the industry. An assistant attorney general, Francis X. Pugh, received a copy of that memo at the time, but said he never passed it on to Sachs.

Sachs, responding to the mayor's comments on the savings and loan issue, accused Schaefer of taking "political cheap shots," and urged him to read a special counsel's report on the origins of the crisis.

The increasingly bitter -- if long-range -- exchange of rhetoric between the two Democratic candidates seemed to offer the promise that a formal debate would be lively.

Such a forum, Sachs said today, would give the voters a chance to judge the candidates' grasp of the issues and their characters, an opportunity he said was not possible as long as Schaefer was "insulated in his royal cocoon in City Hall" and "being paraded around from chamber of commerce to chamber of commerce chirping platitudes."