THE STATES continue to compete for prominence by moving up their presidential primary dates. None wants to risk waiting so late that, by the time it votes, the choice already will have been made. But this is a race without a finish line; in leapfrog, someone is always left behind. Meanwhile, the bunching of the schedule threatens to do serious, small-d democratic damage, mainly by virtue of the premium it puts on accumulating vast sums of money before a single vote is cast.

The latest leaping frogs are Michigan, which moved its primary up a month to Feb. 22, and South Carolina, which, not to be outdone, moved its ahead a week, to Feb. 19. South Carolina's decision crowded New Hampshire, which has a law requiring that its primary remain first in the nation -- a week before any other state's. The tentative New Hampshire date had been Feb. 15, but that is now likely to be changed to Feb. 8, which in turn may affect Iowa, whose caucuses traditionally have been held eight days before New Hampshire. They would have to be moved from Feb. 7 to Jan. 31, and that might not be the end of it. "We can hold our primary before Christmas if it comes to that," said New Hampshire's secretary of state.

The nominating conventions of the two parties will be held in August of next year, but the betting is that the nominations will be settled, or largely so, by mid-March. Twelve states, including the two most populous ones with the largest number of delegates, California and New York, now are scheduled to hold their primaries March 7, and that number may rise. It used to be that a candidate who did well in the early primaries had at least a fighting chance to raise some money and perhaps parlay the victory into strong showings farther down the line -- and conversely, that later voters had some time to take a longer look at early winners.

Now, however, the process is much more heavily front-loaded. A candidate has to have enough money from the outset to mount a serious campaign simultaneously in the two costly mega-states as well as touch all the other necessary early bases. The rule of thumb is that, to do this, candidates have to raise more than $20 million this year -- a year in advance. Who but the already well-established can do that? The need is an invitation to the fund-raising abuses that have become a fixture of our politics.

Campaign finance reform would help. But the more it would help, by perhaps curtailing the flow of funds, the less likely it seems to be to pass. Stretching out the nominating process would likewise help. The parties could force that by refusing to recognize delegates not selected according to a sensible schedule. But the parties are made up of members from the very states that are vying for advantage, and the national organizations are heavily influenced if not controlled by adherents of precisely the established politicians who benefit most from the system.

It's too late to do much about next year's campaign, which in terms of money raised and spent outside the law will likely make the 1996 election look decorous by comparison. But as to the out-of-control nominating process, someone in authority should begin to look ahead.