We live in the most competitive society on earth. By the time little boys are 6, they think they have to become major leaguers. Most of the children in this country feel they have failed before they get to be teen-agers.

Presidential politics is our highest form of competition. The stakes involve the most powerful office in the world; win and you get everything, lose and they don't even give you a plaque. There are no rules, so you can try anything you think will help. But misfigure the risks, leave yourself exposed when you didn't intend to, let the game play you, and you will lose. It is less dangerous to walk through a mine field; you may be blown up, but at least you won't humiliate yourself, at least people won't win their doctorates by proving how stupid you were.

Twenty years ago, Richard Nixon made a mistake in debating John Kennedy. They told Nixon there was going to be a debate, and his eyes lit up. Kennedy was regarded as a superficial man: all form and no substance, a nice guy but not serious-minded enough to be president. Nixon had been a debater in college. Much of his career had been fashioned out of out-pointing people in public confrontations; there had been Alger Hiss and Nikita Khrushchev in the so-called "kitchen debates." What could be better than exposing Kennedy as an inconsequential man in full view of the entire American public?

Nixon, who had nurtured the perception that he was perhaps the best qualified man in history to undertake the presidency, gave up eight years of preparation for his run at the office by agreeing to debate. Kennedy was allowed to stand as Nixon's equal. He didn't have to give better answers than Nixon, he didn't even know where Quemoy and Matsu were. Nixon knew, and in a real debate he would have been awarded points for his knowledge. But Kennedy got the points where it mattered. He looked better, he had a certain presence, he used his answers to make little speeches to constituencies that he hoped would vote for him, and he didn't answer the questions if he didn't want to. Nixon was observed having to use all his self-control to keep from lashing out at his tormentor. He knew he was better, but there wasn't any way to demonstrate it. He had been taken and he knew it.

In 1968, when Nixon won the presidency, there were no debates. Humphrey said he wouldn't debate if George Wallace were present; Nixon said it wouldn't be fair without him. If Humphrey had demanded that Wallace be present, Nixon would have feigned shock that Humphrey could ever have suggested giving a racist candidate a national forum from which to espouse his beliefs. Humphrey finally gave up; he couldn't box Nixon into debating him, and he was losing time.

Nixon won in 1968. He didn't make the same mistake twice. That time he didn't let his opponent cure his problems by debating; that time he didn't waste the eight years it had taken him to come back. Just think: because Nixon mistakenly debated Kennedy in 1960, he wasted eight years of preparation and had to spend eight more years to get a second chance -- 16 years of hotel rooms, speeches, bad food, all the time knowing that if he didn't make it, it would all have been a waste of time.

I heard Nixon say the other morning that Anderson should be included in the upcoming presidential debates now that the Federal Election Commission has ruled that he is entitled to federal funds if he receives 5 percent of the vote this November. Nobody asked Nixon whether he would have participated in a three-man debate if he were Carter, however. Had anyone done so, the only truthful answer Nixon could have given would have been no. Nixon has made a career out of people asking him the wrong questions.

You see, if Nixon were Jimmy Carter, he would be doing the same thing but doing it a lot better. Nixon would first attack the League of Women Voters for tying Anderson's participation to the public opinion polls. Only if Anderson can demonstrate that there is a reasonable likelihood that he can win a few states should he be allowed to participate, Nixon would say. It is an electoral system we live by, and if Anderson can't carry any states, he is by definition just a spoiler who is trying to destroy the two-party system. In Nixon's assessment of the circumstances, there would be more than a hint that perhaps Anderson and Reagan were colliding, and much would be made over their similar conservative backgrounds. When negotiations commenced, Nixon would demand that Reagan come over to the White House and join him in a two-hour joint conference as a precondition to any consideration of three-man debates. If you really want this job, Nixon would taunt, come over here and show what you can do in a forum where they make you answer the questions.

The other thing Nixon would do if he were Carter is to make plenty of news as president. Not a day would go by without the people realizing that the president was doing things on their behalf. Nixon would be seen preparing for the next round of talks on the Middle East, the puzzle of Soviet intentions in Poland would be weighing heavily on his mind, and high-level consultations on this subject would be going on with the People's Republic of China.

Carter's judgment in refusing to participate in three-man debates is sound, but whether it turns out to be a mistake or not will depend on how well he defends his position and whether he can come forward with a heavy dose of positive news during the next week or so. By making news himself, he can make the Reagan-Anderson debate look like a contest of also-rans. On the other hand, if the only thing people hear of Carter is that he won't debate, he runs the risk that the public will view him as weak or inadequate. The important thing is not whether you debate but rather the perceptions that you allow to grow out of the circumstances.

Reagan must be careful as well. Even though he can attack Carter daily for not debating, he will be risking a lot to submit to a debate with Anderson. Anderson's bid for the Republican nomination fell apart when he was beaten in the Illinois primary debates. Presumably wiser now, Anderson should realize that if he can beat Reagan, his stature will rise and he can put extra pressure on Carter. Reagan should not expect the same kind of collegial atmosphere that marked the primary debates. As soon as both Reagan and Anderson call Carter a few names for not debating, Anderson can be expected to tear after Reagan's hide.

It is peculiar that we put such great emphasis on so-called debating. As Richard Nixon found out, the mechanism whereby the candidates are asked by a panel of questioners to respond in turn to softball inquiries doesn't amount to debating at all. Candidates can simply memorize harmless answers, and if something unexpected comes up politely beg off and give a speech.

I watch Johnny Carson on the "Tonight" show to see how public opinion is moving. The other night, as a prelude to getting into a joke, he remarked that we might not have any debates at all this year. He was immediately interrupted by applause. If the politicians and the press would only listen to the people.