While reformers were urging that the presidential campaign season be shortened, the Federal Election Commission yesterday cleared the way for former Florida governor Reubin Askew to set up an exploratory effort that could be the first step in a multiyear campaign for the White House.

A bipartisan panel that has been studying the presidential election process for the past six months recommended that the number of primaries (37 in 1980) be reduced and that the primaries be limited to four months with the elections held on one day of each month.

In addition, the panel concluded that the current system of binding delegates to their candidates has produced a meaningless party convention and asked that the political parties approve rules that would free convention delegates to vote for whomever they want, regardless of their state primaries.

The 20-member Duke University Forum on Presidential Nominations, in its final report, recommended more local party caucuses to select delegates. It also urged that more state and local politicians be included as delegates to provide a more powerful role for the party in the candidate selection process.

"The main thing we're saying is that the party had better take charge of selecting the candidates for president, or Congress, seeing the inadequacy of the present system, is going to take over . . . which would spell doom for the political parties," said Duke University President Terry Sanford who headed the panel and ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.

As Sanford's panel was presenting its recommendations to streamline the primaries and turn the election process into something "more than a marathon," several blocks away the FEC was voting to give Askew clearance to "test the waters" to find out if he should run for president as a Democrat in 1984.

Askew said yesterday that he will begin his exploratory effort in early 1982 and will spend one week out of every month traveling around the country. He added that he does not expect to make any decision on his candidacy until early 1983, when he would become eligible for federal matching funds. If he decides to run, he said he would campaign full time for nomination.

In his request to the FEC, Askew asked about the propriety of travelling, employing political pollsters and consultants, renting office space and equipment, hiring staff, printing letterheads, printing and distributing biographical brochures and soliciting contributions for the exploratory effort--without becoming a "candidate" under the law.

The FEC ruled that those activities are all right as long as Askew does not hold himself out as a candidate and does not raise more money than would be consistent with the expenses of an exploratory committee. The commission did not attempt to specify what that amount would be, but if he should declare his candidacy, all contributions and expenditures would be considered as part of his campaign and would count against his federal spending limitations.

James Bacchus, who is assisting Askew in the exploratory effort, said they view the FEC decision as a "green light."

In offering his recommended changes in the election process, Sanford said that the 1980 nominations were virtually decided by the first day of spring, giving later voters the feeling of not really having had a vote.

Sanford insisted that freeing the convention delegates to vote their choice would not be a return to "boss rule" but conceded that they would be subject to political pressure.

"As the national convention approached, delegates would become targets for persuasion by candidates for the nomination," the report said. "In other words candidates would be motivated to try to win over not only the public and the media, but also sizable collections of relatively active, well informed, representative party members--the delegates."