Democrats unlikely to challenge 'early' votes in Iowa, N.H.

Democratic leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire appear to be winning their battle to head off a possible challenge of their delegations to the party's presidential nominating convention in July.

A special panel appointed late last fall by the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is expected to recommend, within the next few days, against denying seats to delegates from the two states, simply because the selection process began a week too soon.

At issue is a controversial party rule that says Iowa is not supposed to have its town caucuses before Feb. 27 and New Hampshire its primary before March 4.

The latter requirement, however, clashed with Granite State law specifying that its traditional first-in-the-nation primary must come at least a week before a similar vote in another state. Since neighboring Vermont was having its nonbinding so-called ''beauty contest'' among White House aspirants on March 4, New Hampshire officials, saying they had no choice, set their state's primary for Feb. 27.

Not to be overshadowed, Iowa Democrats, with their town caucuses then but 24 hours ahead of the Granite State primary, shifted their date to Feb. 20.

And both states went ahead with their votes, despite refusal of the Democratic Party's hierarchy to sanction the earlier dates.

All of the Democratic presidential aspirants, however, continued to campaign in New Hampshire and most of them in Iowa.

This put the DNC on the spot and led to creation of the special committee to chart a course for selection of delegates from the two states through a process in full compliance with party rules.

''We have been looking for a legal solution rather than a political one,'' explains Polly Baca, the Colorado state senator who chairs the subcommittee.

While declining to suggest what might be done to clear up the matter, others close to the scene say there is no way either Iowa or New Hampshire will have to go through the delegate-selection process again.

''I don't think they (the DNC) have much choice but to accept things the way they are,'' asserts George Bruno, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic State Committee. He notes that except for the primary date, the Granite State was ''in 100 percent compliance with party rules'' governing the selection of delegates.

Were the DNC to move into New Hampshire and attempt to set up a system for selecting convention delegates to replace those chosen in the February primary, Mr. Bruno says, he doubts many would participate.

The Feb. 28 primary, won by Gary Hart with 40 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Walter Mondale, gave each of the two candidates nine delegates, with the remaining four, including Mr. Bruno, ''uncommitted.''

In Iowa, where the Feb. 20 town caucuses chose delegates to an April 7 county convention, the first 34 delegates are to be chosen at conventions Saturday in the state's six congressional districts. The remaining 24 delegates will be selected at a statewide Democratic convention June 9.

Former Vice-President Mondale, who bested Senator Hart 45 percent to 15 percent in the town caucuses, came through the county conventions with 52 percent of the votes to 30 percent for Mr. Hart.

''Our process is the most open anywhere,'' holds J. P. Steffen, the caucus-convention director of the Iowa Democratic State Committee. ''Nothing would be accomplished by substituting something different just to satisfy a rule with which we are in substantial compliance.''

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