Arizona to Challenge New Hampshire's 'First-in-the-Nation Primary' With AM-Primary Primacy-Glance

PHOENIX (AP) _ Betting that presidential contenders would rather spend February in the desert sun than the New England snow, Arizona plans to hold its primary in 1996 on the same day as New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation contest.

Chances are, it won't happen without a fight from New Hampshire.

New Hampshire has a law requiring its primary to be one week earlier than any other state's.

''I don't know how dogged and determined Arizona is to be No. 1,'' said David Moore, a former University of New Hampshire pollster now with the Gallup Organization in Princeton, N.J. ''I do know New Hampshire is very dogged and determined to remain first.''

In 1992, Arizona lawmakers - envious of the attention lavished every four years on the traditional first-in-the-nation primary - set Arizona's first- ever presidential primary for the second Tuesday in March or the same date as the earliest election in any other state. Previously, Arizona chose presidential delegates in party caucuses.

No date has been set yet for the 1996 primary in either Arizona or New Hampshire, though New Hampshire has tentatively scheduled its primary for Feb. 20 pending resolution of the conflict with Arizona.

''There is no way to determine a date,'' said Margaret Stears, Arizona's chief elections officer. ''The Legislature is going to have to go back and make some changes.''

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner suggested that leaders of the two states could try to work out an agreement on the election dates. But he said he hasn't talked to anyone in Arizona about a compromise.

He said the state won't easily give up its primary spot, a tradition that dates to 1916.

''The idea is to let the people have their way. We had it when it wasn't popular, when party bosses chose the presidential candidates,'' Gardner said. ''I don't think our reaction is very different from how any other state would react.''

Republican state Sen. Bev Hermon, chief sponsor of Arizona's primary law, said her intent was to give the people an opportunity to hear from candidates before their platforms have been molded by voters in the East.

Hermon said she didn't expect New Hampshire to take the competition lying down.

''It's become a cottage industry for them,'' she said. ''This is not about a presidential election. It's about creating tourism in the middle of winter when the ground is frozen as solid as rock.''

Democratic National Committee rules set the first Tuesday in March as the earliest possible date for a state to choose its delegates for the national convention, with exceptions made for New Hampshire and Iowa. (By law, Iowa schedules its presidential caucuses eight days before New Hampshire's primary.)

But states can seek exemptions to the Democrats' rules, as South Dakota did when it scheduled its 1996 primary for Feb. 27.

The Republican National Committee has no such similar rules.

The last word in the dispute could belong to the U.S. Justice Department. Any change in Arizona election law must be approved by the department because of past violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The Justice Department has approved the change from presidential party caucuses in the spring to a March primary. But Justice Department attorneys warned last year that they would be reluctant to move the primary earlier for fear bad weather could keep voters from reaching polling places on the Navajo reservation in the state's remote northeastern corner.

Arizona isn't the only state that has taken aim at New Hampshire's early presidential contest. At least 16 other states, including the eight largest, also will hold their 1996 presidential primaries by the end of March.

''Most of the states have decided they want the political clout, not to mention the financial boon, of having an early primary,'' Gallup's Moore said.