Manchester, N.H. -- THE NEW HAMPSHIRE presidential primary of political legend may be held in New Hampshire rather than Iowa next year. As the delegate-selection calendar begins to crystallize, it seems likely that the Democratic vote here once again will be significantall out of proportion to its size.
The frist- in-the-nation primary here was a defining political event from the 1950s through the 1972 election in which George McGovern emerged as a leading contender for the Democratic nomination by running closer than expected to then Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, the national frontrunner from neighboring Maine. It was here that the pecking order was established in both parties. It was here that Eugene J. McCarthy exposed the political weakness of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 -- and proved again that the primary's importance rested on the images it projected on the nation's television screens and front pages.
All that changed in 1976, when candidate Jimmy Carter leaped to the front of the field in the Iowa precinct caucuses several weeks earlier. From that time forward, Iowa became the first critical playing ground and New Hampshire the equivalent of the semi-finals, the contest in which the serious players were separated from the also-rans.
But next year New Hampshire is likely to return to its former glories. The most obvious reason is the prospective candidacy of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. His special status as a home-state favorite will give other Democrats a reason to skip Iowa and save themselves not only political embarrassment but close to $1 million in campaign spending in a year in which money is likely to be very tight indeed.
There are, however, other factors that are likely to increase the importance of the vote here in which 100,000 or so Democrats will choose fewer than 1 percent of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The most important is that this first test will be far and away the best opportunity for candidates to capture the full attention of the press and the national political community.
Although the calendar remains subject to change, the schedule now calls for Iowa to hold its caucuses Feb. 10 and the New Hampshire to follow Feb. 18. There also will be a stand-alone primary in South Dakota Feb. 25 and caucuses in Maine late the same month. But once New Hampshire votes and the pecking order is established, the contest will focus on March 3, when Democrats in Colorado, Minnesota, Maryland, Idaho, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are expected to vote.
There is also the possibility, although it remains unlikely, that California will move its primary up to March 3. If that happens, the cameras will turn instantly from Manchester to Los Angeles.
Otherwise, the operative point about the March 3 voting -- and that in 10 other states on a reduced "Super Tuesday" schedule a week later -- is that it will be spread over so much of the country that it will be extremely difficult for anyone to compete unless he has either large amounts of campaign money or the instant celebrity that will flow from success in New Hampshire.
Just which Democrat benefits most from the attention on New Hampshire is difficult to assess. The early leader in terms of campaign activity is Paul Tsongas, the former senator from neighboring Massachusetts. But unless Tsongas is able to establish creibility in national polls, he is by no means assured of being taken seriously here. Harkin also has been laying the groundwork for a campaign here, as has Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia. There is also a relatively conservative Democratic constituency waiting for someone like Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas or Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. And many Democrats believe Mario Cuomo has the national star quality to be an instant factor in New Hampshire.
It is an article of faith here that campaign organization is the key to this small state. And no one would argue that it is unimportant in terms of enlisting support among the 3,000 to 4,000 Democratic activists in the state. But the truth is, New Hampshire is no longer immune to national polls or to the blandishments of TV commercials.
So no one can say with any assurance now how the New Hampshire campaign will play out. The only certainty seems to be that it will be far more important in 1992 than it has been in the last four presidential campaigns.