LIKE EARLIER BATTLES over civil rights and Vietnam, most of the argument over changes in the way presidential candidates are nominated (and by whom) has taken place within the Democratic Party. But because the Democrats' rules changes have become state law in many places, the "reforms" have had a substantial influence on the way the president is chosen.

In an election year, it's worth considering whether the overhaul has been a good or bad thing. How fair is the system that has evolved? Are the results rigged in any fashion?How easy is it for interested citizens to participate? The rules changes get a mixed report.

On Feb. 26, New Hampshire will initiate a presidential primary period unprecedented in American political history. Over 14 weeks, 37 jurisdictions will hold primaries to select delegates to the national conventions. The controversial rules change that required a state's delegation to include minorities, young people and women in proportion to their respective numbers in the state led directly to this proliferation of primaries. State party leaders, fearing challenges to the makeup of their delegations, opted for primaries, whose results conventions have traditionally been reluctant to upset.

This particular rules change, still in force for the Democrats, lets individual rights be superseded in the electoral process by group rights. The Democrats' process cannot meet any elementary standard of fairness if the results are predeterminded by an age-race-gender formula for participation. The Democrats should eliminate their quota provisions. With quotas gone, more states might choose to return to the convention, the caucus or a mixture of the two for selecting delegates to the national conventions.

Other rules changes have made the delegate-selection process both more accessible and more open to both candidates and voters. The posting of the place and time of party meetings and the elimination of slatemaking and proxy voting are definite improvements.

What is self-evident is the need to make the primary schedule more rational.The national primary proposal, which once looked attractive, is no answer: in all likelihood, the only voter a candidate would actually meet would be the cameraman or the makeup artist in a television studio. There is a genuine advantage, to both the candidate and the country, in the candidate's seeing and being seen by real voters who can judge, among other things, his reactions under campaign pressure to unexpected national and international events. That's good. So is the development of political party strength and political expression in the states.

But holding regional primaries -- in New England, for example, and the Southeast -- on a specific date makes sense to us. That way we might very well get more than the predictable indictment of Big Oil in New Hampshire and Vermont, and perhaps even a public discussion about the price upper New England will pay for its refusal to allow offshore oil drilling. Simply putting in an appearance at the Concord-Nashua high school hockey game might not get a candidate any votes if he could not answer the energy question. In addition to encouraging some discussion among the candidates on pressing regional and national issues, a rational, regional grouping of primaries would save wear and tear on the candidates, as well as money and time. Neighboring states that choose not to hold primaries could schedule their delegate selection during the same period so the candidates could campaign among their voters too.

In view of the courts' (commendable) reluctance to involve themselves in disputes over party rules, any such change would have to be initiated by the parties -- in particular, by the Democrats. The candidate has not yet been born who does not believe that the system under which he won was perfect. Obviously, the lead must come from others.