Two of the nation's oldest and usually friendliest neighbors - New Hampshire and Vermont - may be on a collision course. At issue: the date of their 1984 presidential primaries, and ultimately, one of New Hampshire's most cherished distinctions - holding the first primary election each presidential election year. It's a distinction the state has held since 1952, and one its residents are loathe to give up.
True, New Hampshire will send only 20 delegates and seven alternates to the ' 84 Democratic National Convention. But because it's the first of the season, the state's primary has taken the aura of kingmaker.
In 1976, this often snow-blanketed proving ground for presidential contenders turned ''Jimmy Who?'' into Jimmy Carter, a Democratic candidate to be reckoned with. In 1980, Ronald Reagan rebounded from his defeat in the Iowa caucuses to capture the New Hampshire primary and ultimately, the presidency. And the legions of candidates, reporters, and tourists who converge on the state once every four years also means a great deal of income for a state heavily dependent on tourism.
The dispute between New Hampshire and its western neighbor stems from revised Democratic National Committee (DNC) regulations governing selection of delegates to the party's 1984 national convention. Although a final decision on the number of seats each state and territory will have at the convention won't be made until a Feb. 5, DNC meeting, a draft proposal calls for 3,923 delegates and 1, 310 alternates.
Under the new setup, all states and US territories entitled to representation must pick their delegates within a 13-week period that begins the second Tuesday in March 1984. The aim is to shorten the primary season.
New Hampshire was allowed to hold its primary during the first week of March to retain its first-primary status. But in Vermont, state law mandates that the state primary be held on the first Tuesday in March. And there's no hint Vermont intends to change. If it doesn't, New Hampshire and Vermont voters would vote on the same day.
''If there is a problem, it is New Hampshire's,'' says Ed Granai, Vermont's Democratic state chairman - even though Vermont would violate DNC rules by refusing to shift its primary date.
New Hampshire could hold its primary on the last Tuesday in February. This wouldn't violate state law, which already provides that the state's first-in-the-nation status be retained. But it would violate Democratic Party rules, and delegates elected might not be seated at the national convention.
Because of this, say New Hampshire Democratic officials, candidates seeking the Democratic nomination might be less inclined to search for votes there. If that happens, the state could lose the money that politicians, reporters, and tourists bring.
Vermont Democrats could initiate a move in their Legislature to advance the primary date. But it's questionable how far such a move would go. Republicans hold the majority in both houses of the Legislature, and the state's governor is a Republican. A March 6 primary would not conflict with the Republican National Committee's rules.
Changing the date could be hard to sell. In Vermont, the first Tuesday in March coincides with that most venerable of New England institutions, the town meeting - as well as with elections throughout the state. Moving the presidential primary would thus increase the cost of conducting these other meetings and elections.
If Vermont makes a ''good faith'' effort to comply with the DNC rules, the DNC could grant it an exception. But there is no guarantee of this. If an exception were granted, it's unclear whether national party leaders would be willing to move the New Hampshire primary back to February and push back the Iowa caucus dates. Some observers say an exception for Vermont might be justified by the fact that it's primary is nonbinding. Its 171 delegates and 6 alternates to the national convention actually would be chosen weeks later at party conventions.
April 15 is the deadline for submitting proposals for choosing delegates to the '84 convention. ''Our assumption is the rules will be carried out,'' says Anne Lewis, the DNC's political director. She says a 1980 US Supreme Court ruling, involving a conflict between party rules and Wisconsin election laws, concluded that political parties have the final say over the delegate selection process.