WASHINGTON (AP) _ A former congressman who has accused GOP presidential contender Pat Robertson of ducking combat duty in Korea said today the candidate is ''chickening out'' by trying to drop his libel suit.

''He's chickening out of the trial just like he chickened out 37 years ago,'' said former Rep. Paul N. McCloskey Jr., R-Calif. ''The courtroom's a great place to learn the truth. ... Now that he's up with the truth to be told and testimony under oath, he's backing off.''

Robertson, who faced a trial date on Super Tuesday - the day 20 states hold primaries and caucuses, said Tuesday he wants to drop his $35 million libel suit against McCloskey.

''In order to compete in that trial, I would have to break off my campaign today and run the risk of losing Florida, Texas, South Carolina and other parts of the South,'' Robertson told reporters in Sarasota, Fla.

''That was an impossible decision for me to make and an unfair one,'' he added.

But McCloskey, who insists Robertson invoked his late father's political influence to avoid combat in the Korean War, said he will oppose the former television evangelist's request to drop the case.

''I think the truth ought to be told,'' McCloskey said on ''CBS This Morning.'' ''I don't know any better place to get the truth than in the courtroom. He invoked the process, he ought to go through with it.''

McCloskey said he fears that an individual who avoided combat in his youth may try to make amends in the White House.

''You know when you get a president in office who has evaded combat in his youth and all his advisers are saying look tough against the Soviets ... I think there is a tendency to try to prove your manhood late in life,'' McCloskey said.

Robertson's lawyers called a news conference at their Washington offices today to discuss their decision to ask U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green to dismiss the lawsuit.

''She can't force a plaintiff to continue the suit,'' Robertson said.

But under the civil rules of procedure, the judge could force Robertson to go to trial unless he pays McCloskey's legal expenses of nearly $400,000.

''We are prepared to go to trial,'' said McCloskey's lawyer, George Lehner, adding that the former congressman has long insisted that Robertson pay his legal fees as a condition for any settlement.

The case involves a 1986 letter that McCloskey wrote to Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., D-Ind., alleging that Robertson used the political influence of his father, the late Sen. A. Willis Robertson, D-Va., to get out of combat duty in the Korean War.

McCloskey, a decorated Marine, was aboard a troop ship from which Robertson was removed during a stop in Japan before the ship proceeded to Korea. He quoted Robertson as telling fellow Marines that his father had helped him get out of combat.

In the letter that was published by two syndicated newspaper columns, McCloskey also said the former television evangelist was later assigned to be a ''booze officer'' to a rear-echelon unit in Korea.

Robertson called McCloskey ''a patent liar.''

But McCloskey, a liberal Republican who once sought the Republican presidential nomination as an opponent of President Nixon's Vietnam War policies, has found a number of ex-Marines who served in Korea who support his story.

The former congressman also said today that A. Willis Robertson, in letters written during the war, thanked the Marine Corps for assuring that his son would not be involved in combat. McCloskey's lawyers subpoenad the letters, which had been left to William & Mary College.

A trial, as scheduled, would have resulted in extensive publicity about the allegations as Robertson is trying to win votes in the presidential race. As early as last fall, Robertson expressed regrets over filing the politically troublesome lawsuit, telling Time magazine: ''In all candor, I think it was a bad idea.''

Robertson, who had earlier called Judge Green ''patently unfair'' for refusing to postpone the trial, said Tuesday that she ''had done everything she can to get us to drop the case.''

Robertson proposed that he and McCloskey submit their case to the Iowa Libel Dispute Program run by the University of Iowa's law school and the American Arbitration Association.

If McCloskey refuses, Robertson says he will seek to drop the lawsuit anyway and put the facts of the case to an unspecified panel of experts.

''We will prove to the American people that he truly doesn't want the truth to come out,'' Robertson said.

Lehner called the proposal for arbitration ''a red herring,'' and noted that the idea had been rejected by Robertson's own lawyers nine months ago.