Next year New Hampshire's presidential primary, which traditionally kicks off the election season, may be little more than a so-called beauty contest for Democratic aspirants to the Oval Office.
To prevent this, much depends on whether New Hampshire Democratic leaders are able to influence any of three seemingly irresistible political forces: the Democratic National Committee (DNC), officials in neighboring Vermont, or New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner.
Mr. Gardner, citing a 1975 New Hampshire law requiring that the state presidential primary come at least a week before any similar election elsewhere, has set the date for Feb. 28, seven days earlier than DNC rules permit.
His decision was unavoidable, he says. If the New Hampshire election were held March 6, as the DNC requires, it would fall on the same day as Vermont's. Party rules dictate that New Hampshire hold the first state primary to select delegates to the Democratic nominating convention.
The Democratic National Committee, for its part, has insisted that New Hampshire cannot choose its national convention delegates before March 6, says Louise Lindbloom of the DNC's compliance review staff. ''New Hampshire is locked in,'' she says.
In addition, New Hampshire has failed to persuade Vermont Democrats to shift their primary to a later date. Vermont officials say March 6 is their best choice because that is the day voters go to the polls anyway for their town meetings.
Besides, say Vermonters, their election is not the same as New Hampshire's. No delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be chosen, making their election only a ''beauty contest'' among presidential candidates.
The six contenders for the Democratic nomination, eager to offend no one yet still wanting to adhere to party rules, have agreed not to campaign in the Vermont primary. Even so, Vermont Democratic chairman Edwin Granai, rankled that none of the candidates will appear on his state's ballot, has suggested an amendment. He would like to permit a candidate's local supporters to enter the candidate's name on the Vermont ballot.
Vermont will not pick delegates to the 1984 Democratic nominating convention until April 24, more than six weeks after its nonbinding preference vote and New Hampshire's selection of its 22 delegates.
Since 1952, New Hampshire has held the nation's first presidential preference primary - the first significant test of each candidate's strength. Political analysts say this first test is important; it can speed or slow the momentum of a candidate's campaign. Frequently, the person who carries the New Hampshire primary - Democratic and Republican - wins his party's nomination.
If New Hampshire proceeds to elect its delegates before March 6, those delegates would not be seated at the 1984 nominating convention, says the DNC's Ms. Lindbloom. The DNC would have to find another way to choose those who would represent the state at the national convention next July.
Democratic Party regulations specify that except for Iowa caucuses (which can be held Feb. 27) and a New Hampshire primary on March 6, no delegates to the 1984 nominating convention can be picked before March 13.
Vermont's vote on March 6 does not violate this dictum, because no delegates to the convention are chosen then.
Meanwhile, Maine Democrats have been arguing, so far unsuccessfully, that their city and town caucuses be held March 4 in accordance with a new state law. At those local caucuses, voters select people who will later attend a statewide Democratic convention where delegates to the Democratic National Convention are elected.