WASHINGTON -- A little-noticed movement toward a New England regional presidential primary next March 5 -- also the date for the Maryland primary -- could have a significant effect on the contest for the Republican nomination.
The change in the schedule could magnify the importance of the first primary in the sixth New England state, New Hampshire, Feb. 20. And it could result in a Republican rush to judgment on a nominee even earlier than has been forecast up to now.
It is far from clear which candidate may gain or lose from such a change, although it obviously could help a front runner such as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and pose a problem for Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas if New England voters resist his Southwestern charm.
Although the process is at different points in each state, the prospect is for simultaneous primaries in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and Vermont on March 5, the date known as "Junior Tuesday" because it falls a week before "Super Tuesday," the day on which 10 states have been scheduled to hold primaries or delegate-selection caucuses.
There are primaries also scheduled March 5 in three scattered states -- Georgia, Maryland and Colorado -- as well as caucuses in several small states. But in terms of attention from the national press and political community, none of these states would be considered as influential as the New England group. That could be bad news for Gramm, who has been making a major early effort in Georgia.
The New England primary might be a rich opportunity for another first-tier candidate, Gov. Pete Wilson of California, if Republican primary voters prove to be more hospitable to a relatively moderate Republican who supports abortion rights. Wilson also enjoys the support of the extremely popular governor of Massachusetts, William Weld.
All of this speculation could be knocked into a cocked hat, however, by the results of the first precinct caucuses in Iowa, where Dole is a prohibitive favorite, and the primary in New Hampshire. In the past, the New Hampshire result has had an obvious influence on other New England states. In 1984, for instance, Gary Hart swept Maine five days later after upsetting Walter F. Mondale in New Hampshire.
Thus, if Dole were to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, he would be well-positioned to score another major triumph March 5 -- only two days before the New York primary in which he enjoys the support of most of the Republican establishment.
The so-called front loading of the primary schedule has been under way throughout the past two presidential campaign cycles, as more and more states try to get their primaries scheduled before a de facto nominee is chosen and they become irrelevant. The result is that about three-fourths of the Republican delegates will be chosen by the end of March.
The prime example of this attempt to get a voice in the process has been the move of California from the first Tuesday in June to March 26. That change was viewed as a great potential benefit to Wilson -- California awards Republican delegates on a winner-take-all basis -- and still may prove to be just that.
But enough other states have moved up so it is equally possible that the contest for the nomination may be settled before March 26.
The Super Tuesday primaries still include two major states, Texas and Florida, and several others in the South -- giving Gramm his best, if a belated, opportunity. A week later there will be a de facto Rust Belt primary likely to include Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and possibly Pennsylvania.
On the face of it, an early decision on a nominee might seem to be a boon for a party out of power -- less time for continued intraparty warfare, more time for the Republicans to focus on President Clinton.
But there is a potential down side as well -- the possibility that some candidate will lock up the nomination and then commit some political blunder or reveal some political weakness as a candidate when there is little or no opportunity for the party to correct its mistake.
Nothing like that may happen, of course. But the prospect of a regional primary in New England early in the game makes it more likely.