I think it very important that the argument with respect to the rules for the Democratic convention be put in proper and rational perspective. It would be easy to dismiss the current debate and the rumors and rhetoric circulating daily as mere political tactics in a struggle between candidates. Of course, political tactics are one side of the story, but there are important points of principle and substance involved as well. It is probably true that the primary system needs further and significant change. The time to do it is not in the middle of the game or on a heated convention floor.

As one involved for more than a decade in the effort to reform the Democratic Party's rules and open our presidential nominating process to the broadest range of people, I am very concerned that we realize that the long-term stakes in this issue are high. All that we have achieved in truly opening our party to participation by the broadest range of people could be obscured and wiped away in one narrow struggle by candidates making a last-gasp clutch at a nomination the people have given to another.

As is sometimes the case in political debates, the terms are causing some confusion. The phrase "open convention" is being used by those who are really trying to close and narrow the process by replacing the choice of millions of Democrats with the decision of a relative handful of delegates operating in a closed room in New York City. Each of those delegates has signed a pledge to vote on the first ballot -- and only on the first ballot -- for the candidate favored by the voters in their home district.

This concept no selecting delegates committed by a "contract" with the voters back home to carry out their will on the first ballot has been the goal of reform efforts promoted and agreed to at previous conventions -- often by some of the very people who now claim it an unwise rule.

I was an official of the Democratic Party during many of these efforts, and I think it useful to refer to the record.

In 1968, the Hughes Commission, formed to study the party's delegate selection rules, called for steps "to ensure that the first ballot genuinely represents the wishes of the voters at the grass-roots level."

In 1969, George McGovern, on accepting the chairmanship of the first commission established to reform the party's rules, said: "In many states, the delegates are not selected in an open and democratic manner. Individual citizens are not encouraged or permitted to participate. . . . This, in turn, leads to national conventions that are not responsive to the will of the majority."

In 1974, the Democratic Party adopted a constitution -- its charter -- that guaranteed that delegates to the convention fairly reflected the presidential choices of the rank-and-file Democrats who voted in the caucuses and primaries.

In 1978, in Kansas City, the Democratic National Committee unanimously reaffirmed that fundamental principle by incorporating it in the 1980 delegate selection rules.

The fundamental principle that delegates to the convention follow the will of the people who selected them was supported by backers of President Carter and Sen. Kennedy alike at the time these rules were adopted. In fact, Democrats in all states were given opportunities to comment on the rules then, and there was absolutely no dissent.

The fact is that those who would free delegates to "vote their consciences" in an "open convention" would be sending a clear message to the more than 19 million Democrats who voted in primaries and caucuses that their votes do not count -- and this at a time when we are trying to cure voter apathy in this country.

The recent reforms of the Democratic Party have brought about an unprecedented degree of participation on the part of women, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities. I have been in smoke-filled rooms. I can say from experience that in them are very few women, blacks, Hispanics or minorities of any sort.

At the convention, we intend to support the "faithful delegate" rule -- Rule F(3)(c) -- as a reaffirmation of the Democratic Party Charter, and of the rules under which all candidates have operated throughout this campaign.

Does anyone really believe that if Sen. Kennedy had a majority of the delegates, his advocates or advocates of a third candidate would be hearalding a change in the rules as a "great moral position"? I think not.