New England battles over whose primary will be first

Political jealousy over New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary could jeopardize northern New England's role in the choice of the 1984 Democratic standard bearer.

Democrats in the Granite State and in neighboring Maine and Vermont are on a collision course with their party's national leadership over the dates for their preference votes.

At issue: which state will go first with its vote - and when.

Vermont law provides for presidential primaries, Republican and Democratic, on the first Tuesday in March. That is a week earlier than allowed under rules adopted this spring by the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

A new Maine statute specifies that same-day city and town caucuses there be held ''not later than March 4,'' which is two days earlier than the Vermont date.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire, which under national party regulations can hold its ''first in the nation'' presidential primary on March 6, a week ahead of any other state, is proceeding with plans to go seven days earlier. This, according to Granite State election officials, is necessary to comply with a state law mandating that the vote there precede by a full week a vote anywhere else.

''We simply have no choice in the matter,'' says New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State Robert Ambrose. Even though no delegates are to be elected in the March 6 Vermont ''beauty contest,'' he says, that vote is still a presidential primary.

Unless the disputes are resolved, Democratic presidential aspirants may be reluctant to campaign in states failing to abide by party rules - any delegates they won there might be denied seats at the July 1984 national convention.

A candidate boycott could have an adverse impact on the economy of New Hampshire and perhaps to a lesser extent, Maine and Vermont. To protect New Hampshire's current right to hold its primary first, as it has since 1952, Granite State Democratic officials have filed a guarantee measure for consideration at a July 13 DNC meeting.

If approved, any legal or political roadblocks to a Feb. 28 New Hampshire primary would be removed, explains Democratic state chairman George Bruno. Pointing out that both chambers of the Legislature are GOP-controlled and Gov. John Sununu is a Republican, he says prospects are remote for amending the current ''week before everyone else'' law.

DNC leaders, who have been quietly but unsuccessfully trying to get Vermont to change its ''beauty contest'' date to the second Tuesday in March (instead of the first), maintain that the Vermont vote would not be in real conflict with the New Hampshire vote, even if both were held on March 6.

They point out that the process for selection of Democratic National Convention delegates does not begin in Vermont until well within the permissible period from March 13 through mid-June. The Vermont primary is nonbinding, and the candidate sweeping the vote then could end up without a single delegate, explains Mike Hamby of the DNC's compliance review staff.

Vermont Democratic leaders insist that there is no problem having their primary on March 6 - that is also the day of Vermont town meetings. Holding the presidential popularity vote on a different day would be both costly and inconvenient, they emphasize.

Maine Democrats, whose March 4 caucus plan was rejected June 16 by the DNC's compliance review commission, make it clear they are not giving up. Although both chambers of the Maine Legislature are controlled by Democrats, as is the governorship, there is not even lukewarm support for amending the new law that requires the delegate selection process to start by March 4.

''We presented a strong case for letting us hold the caucuses on the first Sunday in March in accordance with our law,'' says Maine Democratic chairman Barry Hobbins. He explains that the 450 simultaneous local gatherings - all held the same day throughout the state - traditionally have been held in February.

The caucuses in presidential election years not only pick delegates to the April state convention when Democratic National Convention delegates are chosen, but also nominate candidates for town offices, he says.

Mr. Hobbins notes that the arrangement has been in place since 1831 and that in 1980 the DNC's compliance review committee made an exception for his state to hold its caucuses on Feb. 9 - which was 17 days before the New Hampshire primary.

''We have been holding our caucuses in February for 150 years, and certainly that is more of a tradition than the early Iowa caucuses, which date back only to 1972,'' a Maine Democratic official argues. Party rules permit Iowa to hold its gatherings on Feb. 27, nine days before the DNC's date for New Hampshire's primary.

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