Connecticut's Democratic and Republican parties held their state conventions last weekend in Hartford and the over-riding question is why.

Ostensibly, the purpose was to nominate candidates for this fall's election of State officials, slates headed by the slots for governor and U.S. Senator. But in reality, those nominations are not likely to be made until August when there almost certainly will be primaries.

The ranks of Democratic gubernatorial aspirants had been thinned out well before the conventions. Ridgefield's Rudy Marconi, without a personal fortune of his own, had trouble raising the minimum funds required to qualify for public financing of a campaign. He and Meriden's Juan Figuera have dropped out of the gubernatorial sweepstakes. So did First Selectwoman Mary Glassman of Simsbury, who has settled instead on a bid for lieutenant governor.

That left Ned Lamont, Greenwich millionaire who won the primary battle for the U.S. Senate a couple of years ago, but then lost the election war to Joe Lieberman, and Dannell Malloy, who has just wrapped up a 15-year run as mayor of Stamford. Lamont is scheduled to team with Glassman and Malloy with Nancy Wyman, long-time State comptroller, in the No. 2 spots.

On the Republican side, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton also faced fund-raising challenges and so opted to run for the second slot, joining Mike Fedele's bid for governor. Fedele, now lieutenant governor, is seriously challenged now only by Greenwich millionaire Tom Foley, former ambassador to Ireland.

At this juncture, then, it looks almost certainly like the nominations will be settled in August primaries, Malloy v. Lamont for the Democrats and Fedele v. Foley for the Republicans. That line-up poses an interesting sidelight; Malloy and Fedele, both qualifying for public campaign financing, are from Stamford and Lamont and Foley are from Greenwich and are relying on their personal wealth.

On the Senate scene, the Republican front-runner is another Greenwich millionaire, Linda McMahon. Similarly, Richard Blumenthal is the odds-on favorite to get the Democratic nod although recent rumbles about how he may have misrepresented his Marine Corps service during Vietnam War may be a formidable snag in the election.

Now, all of that was readily apparent well before last weekend's state conventions, which brings us back to the question of what purpose those sessions really served.

There was a time when political conventions were dramatic and suspenseful. Party leaders huddled in those legendary smoke-filled rooms and brokered all kinds of deals, trading support of their delegations for political favors. They were fun, productive and decisive. Few would argue, however, that today's more transparent gatherings are not marked improvements.

Conventions now indicate which candidates are officially endorsed by their parties, though that "blessing" is hardly assurance of nomination. Indeed, party leaders anticipate and even welcome (or at least they say they do) primary challenges by candidates who have demonstrated their credibility by the number of delegate votes they muster at the conventions.

Much of the winnowing process had been done already, however. Early hopefuls dropped out or lowered their sights when their "exploratory committees" found insufficient support and fund-raising faltered.

Yet, through all of this, there has been little opportunity for voters to have a more direct role in selecting those who would seek public office. After all is said and done, voters are left to choose only between candidates selected in partisan primaries. More viable access to the ballot is in order so that alternative candidates might express their views and give voters a wider choice. That could be accomplished, perhaps, by allowing potential candidates to petition their way onto the ballot.

Some states are tinkering with "run-off" systems that allow voters to rank choices in order of preference at open primaries between petition candidates and then pitting the top two scorers against each other in the general election. Others favor doing away with the primary altogether and going directly to the general election.

But in Connecticut, "the Land of Steady Habits," the primary system can continue to serve us well if access to the ballot is not limited to endorsements made at political conventions that no longer serve as much more than partisan pep rallies. Those gatherings are important in their own right. Balloons, bands and oratory whip up the enthusiasm that all elections need.