The chairman of the Carter-controlled Democratic National Committee today warned Massachusetts to delay its March 4 primary, the second in the nation, or the delegation elected that day would be barred from the 1980 nominating comvention.
Party Chairman John C. White said the Massachusetts date violates new rules requiring all primaries to fall between March 11 and June 11.
State Sen. Chester Atkins, the Democratic Party chairman in the home state of Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, countered with a vow to fight the national party order in court if the DNC presses its threat.
"I would be in violation of my constitutional oath if I accepted a higher authority to make me vote against my instincts, my conscience, my constituency and the best interest of Massachusetts," said Atkins, A Kennedy supporter.
Carter campaign strategists began lobbying Massachusetts political leaders eariler this year to move the state primary date in an effort to blunt the adverse effects of an early defeat here.Carter came in fourth in 1976.
Carter campaign manager Evan Dobelle said he is "encouraging, not pressuring" the state to comply with the DNC ruling to prevent a "crazy and chaotic" convention floor fight that could pit the president against Kennedy.
Howerver White warned today: "If Massachusetts sticks to tis March 4 date I have no choice but to find them in noncompliance with party rules and an alternate delegae selection system will have to be devised."
"The primary will remain March 4," said Atkins. "The only issue is which delegation will be seated."
Legislative leaders predict that the president would suffer a political defeat if a bill to delay the primary date were pulled out of committee for debate later this week.
"Some people involved in the draft-Kennedy movement want to set up a confrontation with the president to embarrass him," said Rep. John Murphy, the Masschusetts House Democratic whip and a strong Carter supporter.
"And if the members are put on the spot to vote on it," he said, "then it's going to come down to a pro-Carter versus pro-Kennedy fight and I don't see many pro-Carter people in the legislature."
House Speaker Thomas McGee, a Carter backer strongly wooed by the White House, is expected to decide later this week whether to support the measure to move the primary date. His influence is considered crucial to the fate of the bill.
Kennedy, who favors retaining the current date, does not plan to enter the fray, a spokesman said.
Kennedy and other top Democrats here, including members of the congressional delegation, contend the March 4 primary date -- just one week after the New Hampshire contest -- gives the Bay State added national clout in regional issues such as energy.
The state set its primary date before the DNC regulations were implemented in an Ill-fated effort to create a regional primary.
According to DNC rules, each state must take "provable positive steps" to comply with the new 13-week primary season. Massachusetts officials contend New Hampshire officials have ignored that rule because of the massive economic and political benefits of holding the nation's first presidential primary. Next year it will be on Feb.