EAST ANDOVER, N.H. -- Three thousand miles from Dennis and Marge Fenton's living room here, on a late summer evening some six months before this state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was guest of honor at a Hollywood party. The hostess was actress Sally Field, and the crowd was so rich that the only people there without their own accountant and exercise instructor were those passing canape's and serving Perrier Light. Dukakis was there to make a positive impression. Big league stars such as Paul Newman, Whoopi Goldberg and Michael J. Fox had been invited to give Dukakis the once-over and, presumably, if the stars were positively impressed, to give his campaign a large check.
Here in the Fenton living room on that same night there were no marinated mushrooms or Oscar nominees. There were coffee and brownies for the 60 voters who had come to talk to and listen to another presidential candidate, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. Gephardt did not ask for money, but he was asked about it by a retired schoolteacher after the candidate's statement about official misconduct in the current administration. Dorothy Schnare, 70, put it to Dick Gephardt, 46, directly: ''What promises have you made? Whom do you owe?'' That's just the kind of blunt question candidates have come to expect from New Hampshire voters.
By now, the consensus is overwhelming: New Hampshire is a small, remote, unrepresentative state with a wholly disproportionate say about who does and who does not become president of the United States. The egocentric self-importance of the state's voters is expressed in the anecdote about the New Hampshire farmer who's asked by the out-of-state journalist for his opinion of George Bush-Bob Dole-Jack Kemp et al. In his best Pepperidge Farm dialect, the native answers: ''Don't know for sure. I've only met him twice.''
Occasionally, the criticism can turn bitter and personal. So backward and provincial are New Hampshire's voters, has written columnist Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe, that it takes them two hours to watch ''60 Minutes.''
The persistent knocking of New Hampshire contains more than a trace of envy. In deciding who will or won't be president, no other state can approach New Hampshire in clout. In American politics, where change is supposed to be the only permanent reality, New Hampshire remains the one reliable constant. Every four years, its first primary makes the state the center of the political universe. And every four years the New Hampshire voters respond to all that attention by giving the nation a president. Every one of the last nine winners of the last nine U.S. presidential elections in the year of his election won the New Hampshire primary.
Of course, the criticism of New Hampshire is based on more than envy. It is a state without either a large city or a significant minority population. It has historically been much more white and much more Republican than the country and, in recent years, much more prosperous, frequently boasting the nation's lowest unemployment rate. Since 1980, New Hampshire has gone from 25th among the states in per capita income to fifth and remains the fastest-growing state east of the Mississippi and north of Atlanta. The state's collective attitude toward raising revenues to fund government can only be described as obsessive. In New Hampshire, taxation with representation is not universally regarded to be an improvement.
The media like New Hampshire because it's manageable and fun. Two-thirds of the voters live in the southern half of the state, which is just over an hour's drive from Boston. The state's politicians tend to stay involved. For example, the current state Democratic chairman, Joe Grandmaison, was George McGovern's New Hampshire manager in 1972. It's a great place, small enough to run into old friends and to share a cup of cheer at the hotel bar.
But there is a serious reason for having a small state hold the first primary. Here candidates must campaign ''retail'' -- personal campaigning that requires them to answer real questions from real voters. There is something admirably democratic about a presidential candidate's standing at a factory gate without a prepared text or a media consultant, making his case to a blue-collar voter who measures his economic growth in an hourly wage and time and a half for overtime.
In a small state, money does not inevitably determine the winner. In a small state, the underdog, underfinanced and underreported, can still ''retail'' the electorate. An underdog can't simply be overwhelmed by the front-runner's expensive media buy. Of course, the same argument could be made for any small state, and there's certainly good reason to rotate the first-in-the-nation primary among the small states. But for the time being, ''retail'' New Hampshire -- which shows no signs of sharing its celebrity -- is a better early test than ''wholesale'' California with its money and media markets, money and movie people, and money. Let's give New Hampshire a break.