President Reagan suggested in an interview published yesterday that Geraldine A. Ferraro was picked as Walter F. Mondale's running mate not because of her qualifications but because of her gender, and added that her selection "wasn't that big a move."

In a White House interview Tuesday with Hearst newspaper editors and executives, Reagan was asked to assess the impact of Ferraro's candidacy as the first woman vice-presidential nominee of a major party. Until now, the president has refrained from criticizing the selection of Ferraro, except for suggesting once that Mondale had engaged in "tokenism" and "cynical symbolism."

"Well, now, I, first of all, from the standpoint of a woman being a candidate -- high time. Fine," Reagan told the Hearst officials. But he added, "I wonder, though, if it can't be called a great breaking point. . . . "

"I think the problem was here that in the selection, it was someone who had not gone out and, well, for example, suppose there had been a woman candidate for the presidency in their primaries and contesting, and then would be a logical choice, having presented herself before the whole electorate for the nominee of the presidency -- to say that's who I want to be as my running mate.

"This kind of was reaching out, and I think it looked to too many people as if they were simply reaching just for that reason. The other way it would be, say, here's a woman that came up to the place where she's accepted in the eyes of the people as being under consideration for the top spot. And sure, she's a logical choice. And I wish it had been that way.

"But . . . you can't look at a Margaret Thatcher the British prime minister and a Golda Meir the late Israeli prime minister , and for that matter, an Indira Gandhi the late prime minister of India , and say, why should we be so different."

Reagan said that Ferraro's selection "wasn't that big a move . . . . I guess what I'm saying is that that movement must be based not just purely on the sex of the candidate, but must be based, also, on the qualifications of the candidate."

Mondale, campaigning in Baltimore yesterday, responded that Ferraro "is far better prepared for her position than Mr. Reagan was when he was elected. But more than that, she is a very bright person who applies herself and learns every day. No one has ever accused this president of ever applying himself or understanding the issues that a president must understand . . . . "

Ferraro, who was in Milwaukee, said she had demonstrated her capabilities during the three-month campaign and during her televised debate with Vice President Bush.

"Let me suggest if the president has any doubts about my substance perhaps he and I could have a debate," she said. "I am willing to sit down and discuss the issues with him."

In a brief statement, Ferraro said of Reagan: "I am not the individual who during the course of the Oct. 21 debate had indicated that the only alternative to Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos' government was communism, that deficits have no effect upon interest rates. I have also not ever said submarine-launched missiles are recoverable, or recallable.

On another subject, Reagan said he was "not going to let myself be bothered" by the political endorsement of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) by ambassadors the president appointed.