Prelude to a primary

What debate? Was there a debate?'' asks one homemaker and mother in this quaint New Hampshire town. If last Sunday's televised debate among the eight Democratic presidential candidates won any votes in the rural community of Sutton, it's not apparent.

No one knows how many of the town's 684 registered voters watched even a portion of the three-hour program, but interviews with some residents the next day indicate the number was small.

Bob and Pat Spooner, who operate the century-old Sutton General Store, had to ''tend to business'' and there was no time for television. ''I suppose I would have watched some of it if I wasn't working here,'' Mr. Spooner adds, whipping up a toasted western sandwich for a customer at his lunch counter.

Across the street in Sutton Town Hall, Barbara Gorton holds sway as secretary to the board of selectmen. She says she forgot about the debate. ''I guess there will be other opportunities to hear most of them.''

She's probably right. New Hampshire's presidential primary - the first in the nation - is more than five weeks away. The candidates still have time to shake hands, give speeches, and woo voters into their camps.

But America's political attention is already focusing on New Hampshire. Since the state's presidential primary was instituted is 1952, no one has ever been elected president without first winning the Hew Hampshire primary. (Some who lost in New Hampshire have gone on to win their party's nomination, only to lose the election in November.)

But more than anything else, a victory in New Hampshire gives a boost to the winner's campaign. In 1976, Jimmy Carter gained momentum after topping the Democratic ticket here. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy surprised President Lyndon B. Johnson in New Hampshire by winning 42 percent of the Democratic vote. (Johnson later decided not to run again, and Hubert H. Humphrey ultimately carried the banner for the Democrats.)

Ed Barkowski, chef at the Follansbee Inn in North Sutton, says he has not met any of this year's Democratic candidates, but he has received an invitation to an upcoming reception for Gary Hart. During the past few weeks, appeals for support have also come from several other presidential contenders ''including Reubin Askew and John Glenn,'' he says.

Mr. Barkowski is one who watched the debate. He was at work, so he watched ''only about 20 minutes of it,'' but the part he saw was ''quite interesting.''

Peg Chalmers, postmistress at South Sutton, says she is not surprised so many townspeople missed the debate. ''It was a beautiful day and a lot of folks went off cross-country skiing. That's big around here.''

Diane McNair, another Sutton resident who watched ''to see what the candidates had to say,'' reports: ''I saw about half of it, then it was time for dinner.'' She stops short of describing herself as ''a (Walter) Mondale activist ,'' but she makes it clear she leans toward the front-runner. Was there was anything in the debate that changed her opinion, even slightly? ''Certainly not.''

In Sutton, Democrats number fewer than Republicans. But things here have changed in recent years, and Mrs. McNair says the town no longer is considered the rock-ribbed GOP stronghold it once was.

''Things certainly have changed,'' echoes Mrs. Gorton, recalling the years when Democrats were almost nonexistent here.

Sutton - about 32 miles southeast of Hanover and Dartmouth College, scene of Sunday's debate - is situated just off Interstate 89, one of New Hampshire's main highways. Even so, presidential candidates of either party rarely stop here for a round of friendly handshaking, says Selectman Chairman Robert S. Bristol, now completing his 33rd year on the board.

''The candidates probably figure there are too few of us here to matter,'' he concludes. Glancing out the picture window in his office toward King Ridge, he declares, ''Isn't it lovely here?''

Neither Mr. Bristol, a Boston native who moved to Sutton 42 years ago, nor Douglas Sweet, his partner in the surveying and engineering office, watched the debate. But they saw excerpts on a television news program - and seem satisfied that was enough.

With the Feb. 28 deadline approaching, some local residents expect a few of the candidates will stop by on their way to somewhere else. ''If they don't come , maybe they will wave while riding along Route 89,'' quips Bob Reed, the town's part-time police chief. Mr. Reed, who moved here about a year ago, emphasizes he likes the quiet community ''just the way things are.''

Eighth grader Sean McMahon is looking forward to mid-February, when he will serve as a page at a program at the Kearsarge Regional High School in North Sutton. ''I think some of the Democratic candidates will be coming,'' he enthuses.

His mother, Patricia McMahon, is one of Sutton's best-known Democrats and a member of the New Hampshire steering committee for Alan Cranston. She was out of town last weekend, but Sean says he is sure she watched the debate - probably all of it ''if she was (someplace) where she could.''

Most Sutton residents interviewed said the debate is ''a good idea,'' although some lamented it was ''too long'' and ''at times confusing'' with so many candidates.

''I only stuck with it a short time - maybe a half-hour altogether - and that was enough,'' asserts a kindly-looking elderly man as he pushes a heavy quilt of snow from the roof of his single-story, white-clapboarded home. He says he did not hear anything new from any of the candidates - ''and I did not expect to.''

In addition to the Dartmouth eight - Reubin Askew, Alan Cranston, John Glenn, Gary Hart, Ernest Hollings, Jesse Jackson, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale - 17 other Democrats will be listed on New Hampshire's ballot. None is well-known, but all have plunked down the $1,000 required to qualify as a candidate in the Granite State.

The field of 25 is the largest in New Hampshire presidential primary history. Five Republicans, including President Reagan, are on the GOP ballot.

Except for Messrs. Jackson and McGovern, the two most recent additions to the pack, leading candidates have visited the state frequently during the past several months. As they criss-cross the state in search of votes, the aspirants have focused their attention on the thickly-settled areas - places with shopping centers and factories where opportunities to meet people are greatest.

But as the primary draws nearer, candidates are likely to spread out into the rural sections. Whether any will venture as far north as Dixville Notch (pop. 36 ) remains to be seen. Dixville Notch, a few miles from the Canadian border, is the first community in the nation to cast the presidential preference ballot. For almost two decades, the two dozen voters there have cast their votes at one minute past midnight on primary day.

On Feb. 28 New Hampshire Democrats will also elect 14 delegates - seven from each of the state's two congressional districts - to next summer's nominating convention in San Francisco. But the delegates' status is still uncertain: The Democratic National Committee has refused to waive its rule that the state's primary be held no earlier than March 6, a week after the date set by New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner.

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