New England, at last, has had a big snow, which is fine for the ski industry. But in New Hampshire, scene of the year's first primary, they're still talking about that 1952 snowstorm, in which the late Sen. Estes Kefauver took on the elements while campaigning against Harry Truman for the Democratic nomination.

It was such a grind that even the rugged Kefauver, once a powerful football tackle, became so groggy he hardly knew where he was. In going from one snowbound hamlet to another, he would jump out of his car to shake hands every time he saw a cluster of people. He stepped up to one group, saying, "I'm Estes Kefauver. I'm running for president. How'm I doing here?" One fellow said, "You're doing fine here, but you'd better get back to New Hampshire where the primary is -- this is Vermont."

His condition will be readily appreciated by every presidential candidate who has ever hit the man-killing primary trail in pursuit of his party's nomination. The experience is so exhausting, and the results are so dubious, that every election inspires a fresh debate on the whole American system (if it can be called that) of selecting presidential nominees, especially the ever-proliferating and chaotic primary machinery.

This argument has been going on since the turn of the century, when the preferential primary was first invented as the democratic answer to "smoke-filled rooms" and boss-dominated conventions. Meanwhile, the bosses have disappeared, the primaries have doubled in number since 1960 and New Hampshire is again about to exert its freakish influence on making or breaking candidates.

It is a small, rural, virtually all-white, unrepresentative state, but electorally it is prodigious. For instance, two weeks after Kefauver's 1952 New Hampshire victory, President Truman withdrew from the campaign, paving the way for Adlai Stevenson's emergence. And in 1968, after former Sen. Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing against Lyndon Johnson, another incumbent president withdrew from the race.

Dwight Eisenhower's defeat of Sen. Robert Taft in New Hampshire's 1952 primary was the beginning of the end for "Mr Republican." In the state's 1976 primary, five liberal Democrats won over 70 percent of the vote. Jimmy Carter (as a moderate-conservative) won only 28.4 percent, but he came in first, and he might as well have been shot out of a cannon.

This year, over 75 percent of the delegates to the national party conventions will be chosen in 36 state primaries, plus several state caucuses, as against 40 percent in 1960, when there were only 16 primaries.

In 1976, Carter got the nomination almost by default, for the primaries had already become so forbidding that most of the leading Democrats -- including Hubert Humphrey, Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale (then a Minnesota senator), Edmund Muskie and George McGovern -- declined to enter the marathon. It would now be impossible to "draft" reluctant but outstanding candidates like Eisenhower and Stevenson, for the conventions have been reduced to ratification ceremonies. Both Carter and McGovern had the Democratic nomination locked up before the convention was held.

The clamor for relief is again building in Congress, just as it does in every presidential election year. Since 1911, 248 reform bills have been introduced, ranging in scope from establishing regional primaries to a single national primary on a given day. None has passed muster.

Four years ago, Mondale and 21 other senators from both parties sponsored a resolution to establish a bipartisan commission to make a comprehensive study of the whole nominating process and report back its findings and recommendations in 1977.

The present system, Mondale said, "is close to anarchy." There are, he noted, really 55 separate and different systems, and there are now so many delegates chosen this way that, as he said, "we virtually have a de facto national primary -- albeit in fragmented form -- without ever having adopted it as a matter of national policy." The commission study was enthusiastically hailed at the time, but after the election nothing more was heard of it, one reason being that its author had left the Senate to become vice president.

Nobody wants to go back to the old boss-run conventions, but there is a growing conviction that the primary formula needs an admixture of party leadership and responsibility. One compromise that has attracted some attention would elect half or more of the delegates through primaries, with the remaining seats filled by elected party officials, such as members of the House and Senate, governors of states, state chairmen, national committee members and the majority and minority leaders of the state legislatures.

No proposal is likely to satisfy everybody, but the automatic inclusion of recognized party leaders would go a long way toward stabilizing the irrational system we now rely on.