Leaders of the Democratic National Committee and party chiefs in Iowa, Maine, and New Hampshire are on a collision course, with neither side about to yield the right of way.
Trapped in the middle are Democratic presidential hopefuls, who find themselves in what appears to be a no-win situation that could have a major impact on the process for selecting delegates to the party convention next summer.
At issue is whether the three states should be allowed to hold their presidential preference votes a week earlier than prescribed under rules adopted earlier this year by the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The committee forbids the selection of delegates before next March 13, but makes exceptions for Iowa to hold its caucus Feb. 27 and New Hampshire to have its primary March 6, so they can retain their first-in-the-nation status. But Democratic leaders in the two states insist their state laws mandate a vote a week earlier.
And in Maine, a statute approved this year requires that local caucuses, at which the delegate-selection process begins, cannot be held later than March 4, also a week earlier than the national Democratic schedule permits.
Despite warnings from the DNC and chairman Charles T. Manatt, who says the regulations ''will be enforced,'' party leaders in the three states are determined to press for a waiver. On Oct. 28 the DNC's executive committee set up a panel to provide an alternative means of filling seats from noncomplying states at next summer's convention. Such a move could set the stage for a bitter , potentially divisive confrontation between rival delegations, something the presidential aspirants would hardly welcome.
While the various White House hopefuls earlier this year endorsed the party rules governing delegate selection, they have been under pressure from party leaders in the three states who want to modify the schedule.
On Oct. 29, the seven then-announced Democratic contenders attended a midterm convention of New Hampshire Democrats. And all but Reubin Askew signed a letter to the DNC endorsing waivers for the three states.
The message, directed to national chairman Manatt, supported a Feb. 20 Iowa caucus, a Feb. 28 New Hampshire primary, and March 4 Maine caucuses. The letter warned that if there were an alternative delegate-selection arrangement provided by the DNC, they would not participate in the new arrangement.
Clearly several, if not all, of the presidential candidates were hesitant about signing, but a refusal might create problems. In New Hampshire, for example, state officials, who are Republicans, have already set the primary for Feb. 28, since Granite State law specifies the vote must come at least a week before a similar process elsewhere. The earlier date is justified, officials say , since neighboring Vermont has set its nonbinding presidential preference vote for March 6.
Iowa law mandates that its presidential caucuses come eight days before the choice of delegates in any other state.
DNC action on the proposals is expected by Sunday.
The three states combined have 107 of the 3,923 delegates to the 1984 nominating convention in San Francisco. Iowa has 58; Maine, 27; and New Hampshire, 22.
Besides state law, New Hampshire Democratic leaders contend that they have tradition on their side in support of a Feb. 28 primary, since the Granite State has had the first-in-the-nation presidential primary since 1952.
The Iowa caucuses have been a nomination pace-setter since 1972, party leaders there emphasize to justify their bid to move the date to Feb. 20.
Maine Democrats say that not being able to hold local caucuses on March 4 not only would violate state law but also would upset the town-meeting schedule. ''We have a tradition of holding caucuses in February or even earlier, dating back to Civil War times,'' Democratic State chairman Barry Hobbins explains.