MORE THAN a year before the fact, Maryland Democratic leaders are aghast at the prospect of bitter primary fights for governor and the U.S. Senate. Party elders warn that internecine warfare in 2006 -- between the probable gubernatorial candidates, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, and between the party's declared candidates for the Senate, former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin -- will yield nominees too bruised and too drained of campaign funds to mount robust races against deep-pocketed Republican candidates who are unlikely to face primary challenges.

So instead of holding gubernatorial primaries in September, as the state has done for nearly 100 years (with two exceptions at mid-century), some Democrats are proposing to move them up to mid-June, thereby giving the party five months instead of two to regroup for the November general elections. It's a bad idea on a number of counts.

First, shifting the primary date would apply to both parties and would require state legislation. While the Democrats may be able to muster enough support to drive through a bill, doing so would smack of the self-interested power plays of which Republicans in Congress stand accused. What's more, it could easily backfire. A June primary might possibly improve the Democrats' chances next year but hurt them four or eight years hence when Republicans are slugging it out in primaries.

The party should weigh, too, the likely depressive effect on voter turnout of shifting the primaries to June from September. In Virginia, last month's primaries attracted a pathetic 6.5 percent of registered voters to the polls. By contrast, more than 30 percent of Maryland voters cast September primary ballots in three of the past four gubernatorial election years. It would be folly to imperil that level of voter involvement for the sake of dubious partisan advantage.