If you thought the Quayle-Bentsen debate was heated, you should have seen the Mac-Laine-Letterman debate the night before.

One day before the vice presidential candidates sparred on network television Wednesday, actress Shirley MacLaine appeared on NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman," ostensibly to plug her new film, "Madame Sousatzka."But the host, to her annoyance, preferred to discuss MacLaine's tales of exotic past lives, which she has written about in two books.

"I already said I don't think we can get into it and you keep harping on it. Maybe Cher was right, maybe you are an (expletive)," Mac-Laine said. Network censors bleeped the remark.

"Why did you call me that?" asked Letterman.

"I thought it was a funny remark," answered MacLaine.

"Calling me an (expletive)?" wondered Letterman.

The comedian asked later: "Are you really upset or are you pretending?"

"You can't tell?" responded MacLaine.

"I've never met you," said Letterman.

"You've met me. You were running around these dressing rooms at NBC trying to get me to go on your show," MacLaine said.

And:

"Is there anything you want to talk about?" asked he.

"You're the interviewer, you tell me, you've wanted me here for three years," answered she.

"And I think we'll probably wait another three," said the host.

Letterman producer Robert Morton said he didn't think anyone went away upset. "It was good TV, and we would consider her as a possible guest on the show in the future," he told the Daily News.

And in the blue corner? "Maybe we were irascible lovers in a past life," suggested Mac-Laine through a spokesman.