WHAT IF THEY gave a primary and nobody

came? That's what might just happen in New Hampshire this year. The Democratic Party, in its latest set of presidential delegate selection rules, required all states to select delegates within a "window" beginning on March 13 and ending June 12. Just two exceptions were allowed: New Hampshire could hold its traditionally first-in-the-nation primary on March 6 and Iowa could hold its by now traditionally first-in- the-nation precinct caucuses Feb. 27.

But now New Hampshire threatens to bollix up this schedule by holding its primary a week earlier than allowed, on Feb. 28. The reason: Vermont has a primary on March 6. But the Democratic National Committee says that doesn't matter: the Vermont election is just a "beauty contest" which has no bearing on choosing the state's delegates. If New Hampshire moves its contest a week ahead, so will Iowa; and Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, which have primaries scheduled for March 13, are threatening to hold them a week earlier, too. That would leave half a dozen states out the Democrats' window.

Yet it appears that New Hampshire can get away with its defiance. Technically, the DNC can rule that delegates chosen in a "pre-window" primary are not entitled to seats in a convention, and the Democrats even have a procedure for setting up alternate delegate selection methods in a state that flies out the window. But what presidential candidate wants to offend New Hampshire? On Saturday six Democratic candidates will be up in New Hampshire and will be asked to sign a letter saying they'll compete in the state's primary, regardless of when it's held or what the DNC says about it. Most of them have invested a lot of time and resources in campaigning in this little state. They know as well that the national press will probably follow a New Hampshire primary, especially if other candidates are competing there, regardless of whether the winner technically gets delegates to the national convention. After all, New Hampshire elects only 22 of 3,931 delegates in any case; even if you reduce that 22 to zero, the contest will still be the thing.

The DNC has one final argument to the local politicos and tavernkeepers of New Hampshire, who prosper so in the quadrennial primary season, and that is this: if you get this far out the window, what is to stop everybody else from doing so too? And what is to stop someone from having a primary before New Hampshire's? New Hampshire's state law requires it to hold its primary a week before that of any other state. We've always wondered what would happen if another state passed a law saying its presidential primary had to be held a week before New Hampshire's. In the meantime, the national Democrats are trying to slough over the problem with some kind of compromise; perhaps the primary will be declared unofficial but the national Democrats will later agree quietly to seat the delegates it selects. The efforts to keep everybody inside the window seem reasonable to us. There's nothing in the Constitution, after all, that says that the presidential campaign has to start in New Hampshire and Iowa.