IN SEPTEMBER 1986, Pat Robertson sued former representative Pete McCloskey for libel and asked for $35 million in damages. The subject of the lawsuit was Mr. McCloskey's charge that Mr. Robertson, with whom he served in the Marine Corps in the Korean War, avoided combat duty through the influence of his father, who was then a senator from Virginia. In September 1987, in pretrial conferences with both parties, Judge Joyce Hens Green set a trial date of March 8, 1988 -- the date of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries. In December and again in January, Mr. Robertson's lawyers sought a postponement of the trial. Judge Green denied their request. So now Mr. Robertson and his lawyers have announced that they will seek to drop the lawsuit that they themselves brought 18 months ago.

Obviously the trial date put Mr. Robertson in a bind: while most candidates do little campaigning on Election Day, testifying and preparing to testify would take him off the campaign trail at a crucial period politically. Yet Mr. Robertson brought the lawsuit, in which Mr. McCloskey's reputation is at risk as well as his own, and for at least a few months did not object to the trial date. At a time when courts are under pressure to speed up cases on their dockets, judges are reluctant to reschedule trials for the convenience -- however pressing -- of litigants. Mr. Robertson says he was forced to choose between protecting his and his father's reputations and honoring his responsibilities to those supporting his campaign. Mr. McCloskey says that "he's chickening out of trial just like he chickened out 37 years ago."

This is not necessarily the end of the case. Judge Green does not have to dismiss the suit, and Mr. McCloskey wants her to conduct the trial as scheduled or, if Mr. Robertson refuses, to take the unusual step of ordering him to pay Mr. McCloskey's legal fees of some $400,000. Mr. Robertson emphasizes that he would like to have the factual issues settled by arbitration by the Iowa Libel Dispute Prorgam run by the University of Iowa law school and the American Arbitration Association. Obviously, Mr. McCloskey would like to embarrass Mr. Robertson, and what is known of the testimony of his witnesses would indeed be embarrassing; Mr. Robertson does not dispute that, although he served for a time in what technically was a combat zone, he served as a supply clerk and not in what most people would consider to be combat duty. Mr. Robertson argues strenuously that he has witnesses who will refute Mr. McCloskey's charges and that he could not have telephoned his father from the Far East. But even if he prevailed in court -- and no one familiar with lawsuits is comfortable predicting a jury verdict -- airing these charges would surely not help him politically.

Judge Green's refusal to reschedule the trial did put Mr. Robertson in a hard place. But Mr. Robertson's decision to try to drop a lawsuit he brought in the first place should leave voters with some additional doubts about his judgment.