The great debate about the great nondebate among the Democratic presidential candidates continued today as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) found himself debating from afar with Rosalynn Carter over whether political debates would endanger the American hostages in Tehran.

Handshaking his way through coastal towns in New Hampshire and Maine, Kennedy took repeated pokes at Rosalynn Carter's contention that her husband is ducking a debate with his challengers out of concern for the international situation.

"The administration says Mr. Carter has to avoid partisan politics because of the Iranian situation," Kennedy said. "But they have Cabinet officers all over Maine and New Hampshire. They have Mrs. Carter out campaigning, and Vice President Mondale. I guess they don't think that kind of politicking is so harmful."

The First Lady said Thursday that the president was avoiding debate because partisan politics now might endanger the hostages. "Those countries don't understand our system of politics," she said.

Kennedy, who has made the nondebate a standard part of his stump litany, replied today that a debate would help because it could lead to proposals that might end the 90-day stalemate between Iran and the United States.

Kennedy's comments today on the debate question were overshadowed somewhat by a confusing semantic debate between him and the press corps about a new verbal rocket that Kennedy launched early this morning.

In a CBS News interview, Kennedy was asked about presidential envoy Clark Clifford's comment that Soviet interference with Middle East oil shipments "would mean war."

"That kind of talk is getting us close to a war-type hysteria." Kennedy responded. "I'd be extremely reluctant to see a whole new generation going to the Persian Gulf and losing their lives to protect OPEC pipelines . . . Of course, it's a serious crisis, but I think there's a real war hysteria in this country, and it has been built up."

Reporters for the other networks, sensing a story in this new rhetorical foray, wanted Kennedy to repeat the charge for their cameras. When the entourage arrived here at noon, they asked Kennedy again about Clifford's remark.

This time, Kennedy gave essentially the same answer, but he replaced the word "hysteria" with "a very deep concern among the American people."

The reporters then complained that Kennedy had backed off his earlier statement. Hearing this, Kennedy stepped up to the microphones again and repeated the answer again, this time using "hysteria."

Asked to comment, State Department spokesman Hodding Carter observed that "whatever atmosphere has been created" was the fault of the Soviets.

Kennedy managed to fit in a good day's campaigning, despite all the interviews and news conferences. He toured factories in New Hampshire and Mained, and tonight he gave a detailed address on the rights of women before an attentive group of them in Portland.

Kennedy discussed his support for the Equal Rights Amendment and the need to deal with the problems of women in the workplace, in health care, in government and in the Social Security system.

He noted that, with his wife, Joan, attending graduate school, he has had greater responsibility for raising their three children, an experience he said "more men should share."'