The "other" debate last night was a disjointed, makeshift affair in which almost everything that could possibly go wrong did.
There wasn't a single thing smooth or slick about the unusual one-man encounter with a 16-foot-square television screen that took place on the sidelines of presidential politics in cavernous Constitution Hall.
It seemed somehow almost fitting, considering that the debate featured John B. Anderson, the maverick independent presidential candidate, and was sponsored by Cable News Network, the maverick television system.
The sponsors tried to make everything look as much as possible like the "real" League of Women Voters debate in Cleveland. They built a podium for moderator Daniel Schorr to sit at. They hung a blue curtain backdrop, like the one at the Carter-Reagan debate in Cleveland. And they brought in an impressive pulpit for Anderson to sit behind.
The idea was for Anderson to listen, by means of the big television screen, to what President Carter and Ronald Reagan were saying in Cleveland and then offer his thoughts.
But from the start almost everything possible went wrong.The 24 telephones that the Anderson campaign had installed for the press to report on the debate did not work, and the telephone company yanked them out before the event began.
Then came one technical difficulty after another. Entire questions were lost, only to reappear in confusing order. Voices faded while the faces of Reagan and Carter appeared. Strange noises crackled.
The crowd -- mostly Anderson supporters -- hissed at Barbara Walters, one of the questioners in Cleveland, and hooted Reagan and Carter.
At one point, the transmission from Cleveland disappeared for four minutes.
Anderson aides fumed.
In addition to the problems in Constitution Hall, Anderson's people had trouble with NBC.They had purchased time to run a five-minute commercial on the network before the Carter-Reagan debate. But the commercial did not run because of what a network spokesman described as "human error."
Mitchell Rogovin, Anderson's general counsel, complained that "sinister forces" were at work. The failure of the commerical to be broadcast as scheduled was "murder," he said, declaring: "We needed it desperately. I don't think you ever lose money betting on incompetence. But you have to recognize we have to be paranoid at this point."
Anderson's press secretary, Tom Mathews, went further.
"This is more than curious," he said. "Maybe we have a return of the dirty tricks."
Schorr was apologetic. At one point he said: "I want to apologize for technical problems we've had so far. To be perfectly frank, we are getting our act together backstage."
At another, he added: "Four years from now we'll do this better. And the third-party candidate will be very smooth by then, after four years of practice."
Anderson gave one of his best performances of the campaign. He was loose, relaxed and combative. He was a markedly different performer than the one who appeared in a league-sponsored debate with Reagan in Baltimore last month.
Anderson looked like a skilled professor delivering a graduate seminar in his living room. He attacked Carter and Reagan point by point on their positions on the economy, foreign affairs, energy and defense.
"As I've listened to the two candidates, I've come to the conclusion that there's no difference between the two on whether you can fight a limited nuclear war," he said, claiming that both men believe it is possible. In discussing defense issues, he pointedly said that he had seen combat in World War II, unlike the other two.
"A couple of times we've had a marred performance," he said. "But I think it's exciting that millions of people had a chance to hear a point of view that wasn't offered otherwise."
Who won the debate? Anderson told television interviewers later that he did, and that Carter came in second.
The cable network decided to sponsor the "debate" after the League of Women Voters excluded Anderson from the Carter-Reagan session because of his low standing in the polls.
It was not known how many viewers watched Anderson's performance. The cable network claims to have 3 1/2 million subscribers. Several public television stations -- including WETA-TV here -- and a number of commercial stations -- including one in Anderson's hometown of Rockford, Ill., also aired the telecast, as did a number of radio stations.