``Kansas has its corn, Oklahoma has its oil, and New Hampshire has its first-in-the-nation presidential primary,'' says George Bruno, New Hampshire's newly reelected Democratic chairman. But his state's long-cherished role as the starting gate for the presidential elections is being threatened by moves from inside and outside the major parties.
Oklahoma lawmakers, for instance, are considering a measure to establish a winner-take-all presidential primary coming one week before any other state's primary. The legislation cleared the state's House of Representatives in March and is expected to come before the Senate in early May.
It would put Oklahoma on a collision course with New Hampshire, which has had a similar measure on its books for more than a decade.
Efforts to head off a clash are under way within the Democratic Party, and sponsors of the Oklahoma legislation appear ready to settle for a primary date that would make theirs one of the first.
``The important thing is that we have a primary, and it comes early in March,'' explains state Rep. Jim Hamilton (D) of Poteau, the bill's prime sponsor.
State Rep. Bill Clark (R) of Tulsa, who pushed the idea of making Oklahoma's primary the first, says that New Hampshire has ``an inordinate influence'' on the American political scene and that the state is not typical of the nation as a whole.
The Oklahoma legislation would not affect the Iowa law that requires that state to hold its district caucuses eight days before the first state primary in the nation.
Prior to the 1984 presidential campaigns, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) adopted regulations requiring the selection of delegates to come between the second Tuesday in March and first Tuesday in June. Exceptions were made for New Hampshire's primary to be held one week earlier, on March 6, and for Iowa to hold its caucus eight days before the New Hampshire vote.
Nevertheless, New Hampshire insisted on holding its primary Feb. 28 rather than the DNC date of March 6 -- the same day as Vermont's nonbinding ``beauty contest'' vote. National Democratic Party officials yielded to New Hampshire and waived regulations that could have denied the state's delegates accreditation to the party's national nominating convention.
Democrats want to avoid that confusion in 1988, and several alternative delegation-selection processes have been proposed. Some activists are expected to revive the push for regional primaries. Others favor narrowing the time within which all states choose their delegates.
The DNC is forming a 50-member party Fairness Commission to consider ways to improve the delegate selection process. Its recommendations are expected to go before the full DNC early next year.
Regardless of what the commission decides, there is ``no way New Hampshire will give up on having its primary first, ahead of everywhere else,'' Mr. Bruno says.
Elsie Vartania, GOP chairwoman for New Hampshire, also opposes any attempt to deprive New Hampshire of its first-in-the-nation primary, which she and other supporters view as a ``bellwether'' for the nation. Defenders of the arrangement note that since 1952, the candidate who won the presidency also won the majority of his party's vote in the New Hampshire primary.
Possible improvements in the delegate selection process, including regional primaries, are also being weighed by a new coalition of moderate and conservative Democrats. The coalition, led by Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, seeks to prevent special-interest groups from having a disproportionate impact on presidential politics through the primary process.