How many southern states will begin their presidential delegate selection process in the first full week of March 1988? You can get ready, it appears, to chalk up Virginia and Maryland as numbers 9 and 10. In Richmond, the General Assembly has just changed the early caucus bill it had previously passed to meet Gov. Gerald Baliles' complaints. Assuming the governor signs it, Virginia now will hold its precinct caucuses Saturday, March 12. In Annapolis, the legislature has sent an early primary bill to Gov. Harry Hughes's desk. If he signs it, 10 southern states, plus Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, will hold presidential primaries or caucuses the week of March 8, 1988. The Louisiana and North Carolina legislatures are expected to pass similar bills later this spring; and rkansas and Texas may very well join the trend in their sessions in 1987.

This means that the goal of a "southern regional primary" is close at hand. It is intended to force presidential candidates to campaign early and heavily in the South and to tailor their appeals to the sensibilities of southern voters. The Democratic legislators who have been promoting the idea want to increase their party's chances of nominating a candidate who can carry the South and the electoral college, and in that they may succeed.

But remember that there is nothing preventing Yankee legislators from joining the three New England states and scheduling their primaries and caucuses the first full week of March too. It is easy to see how we can get to a result that nobody wants -- a de facto national primary, in which nominees are effectively chosen, from a list of candidates nobody knows in much depth, on a single day.

But all the talk is about Democrats. What about the Republicans? A good question, especially in Virginia. The southern regional primary is a proposal designed by Democrats, passed by Democrats, to help Democrats. Yet in most cases the Republican process has been changed too. This may be unavoidable in primary states, where both parties must vote on the same day, and it is unexceptionable in states where Republicans are happy to support the change. But neither is the case in Virginia. Republicans in the legislature voted unanimously against it. They have a caucus process longer than that of the Democrats, one that involves a great many people and helps build their party, and they fear it would be short-circuited by the schedule adopted for the Democrats' convenience. There is no reason why the presidential caucuses of both parties must take place on the same day; the conventions nominating the gubernatorial candidates don't.

Gov. Baliles and the Democrats in the General Assembly should have let the Republicans keep the systemhey want. The Democrats reply that Republicans in other states welcome the change. But what has that got to do with Virginia? We see in the Democrats' action here and in their bill prohibiting redistricting in fast-growing Fairfax County a nasty partisan edge and a lack of fair play to the party that is now, though perhaps not forever, in the minority.