THE Empire State has just become more important in the Republican presidential primary.
On Nov. 27, a Federal judge made it easier for Republican candidates to get their names on the New York primary ballot. The action, if it withstands an appeal, will allow candidates such as Lamar Alexander and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm to fight Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who is the party bosses' choice for the state's delegates. New York represents 10 percent of the votes required to win the Republican nomination.
''The ruling allows candidates to make New York a place they can now compete in, which means whoever survives the early primaries might be able to compete for delegates in New York and use the boomerang effect,'' says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Until now, New York has operated under a primary system that required each candidate to gather many more signatures than in most states, limiting the number of candidates that appear on the ballot.
This week Senator Dole and Steve Forbes both kicked off campaigns. On the Democratic ticket, President Clinton also started his effort to get on the March 7 primary ballot. The signatures need to be gathered by Jan. 4.
The judge's ruling came as a result of a lawsuit brought by Republican moderate Larry Rockefeller who wanted to open up the primary system. Mr. Rockefeller's lawyer, Richard Emery, argued that the current primary system favors the candidate picked by the party bosses. Judge Edward Korman agreed and reduced the percentage of signatures required to get on the ballot in each of the 31 congressional districts.
''Democracy won a round,'' says Rockefeller, an environmental lawyer and a nephew of former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller says he mounted the legal challenge because he felt ''democracy requires a choice on the ballot for voters.''
At a Nov. 28 press conference, candidate Steve Forbes said he welcomed the ruling and announced that his campaign would immediately get 500 volunteers and staffers in all the districts.
But Mr. Forbes said he felt New York's rules were still too restrictive compared with other states that allow a candidate to run with only a few thousand valid signatures of state voters. Even before the judge's ruling, Forbes had planned to try to get his name on the ballot in the state.
Under the existing system, a candidate had to collect 1,250 signatures or 5 percent (whichever is less) of enrolled Republican voters in each of the congressional districts. The system favored the choice of the party hierarchy who could mobilize party workers to collect signatures.
Forbes, the millionaire editor in chief of Forbes magazine, has been spending freely in New Hampshire and Iowa. As a result of this spending on radio and television advertising, Forbes has moved into second place behind Dole in some polls.
Forbes expects that he will continue to spend in the Empire State, where he recently opened a campaign office. That office was burglarized in the early morning on Nov. 27. A fax machine, copy machine, and ballot petition forms were stolen, and the campaign's computers left on. Forbes maintains it was a simple break in. At his press conference he tried to down play its significance. ''There's no evidence otherwise,'' he said.
Dole appears to be leading the other candidates in the polls in New York. Mr. Miringoff says Dole's numbers ''appear to be as strong in New York as he is elsewhere.''
Dole has received the backing of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and Gov. George Pataki. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has yet to endorse a candidate. If the rule change holds up in court, it's likely Mr. Giuliani will start to receive a lot more visits from the other candidates.