George Corley Wallace hunkered low in his wheelchair, perhaps America's most durable demagogue, his head cocked to one side, bushy eyebrows squinting hard at the sea of black faces. Once an arch-segregationist, he ruled Alabama for almost two decades, defending states' rights, whipping up racial furies as the angry man's candidate, then riding the frustrations of America's working class to impressive presidential primary victories that shook the Democratic Party to its bones before a would-be assassin ended his dreams.

Now he had come to this black Baptist church seeking a pardon in his quest to be governor again. "I have seen the mistakes all of us have made in years past," he said from the pulpit, looking out across a congregation that included black civil rights leaders whose heads had once been busted by his state troopers.

To hear supporters tell it, he is a new man, a born-again politician with repentant racial views. Others call him a cagey chameleon who merely changed colors to survive after blacks down South got the vote. Wallace will not go quite so far as to say he is sorry he once vowed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

"I'm not apologizing for anything," he said, slumping in the back seat of his black limousine, the ever-present Garcia Vega clamped between his teeth after a crowd of 750 farmers, unemployed steelworkers and good old boys cheered him in Dothan. "I stood for what I stood for because I believed, like most white people of Alabama at the time, that segregation was right . . .

"Some of my attitudes were mistaken, but I haven't been an evil man. I never intentionally hurt anybody. I never advocated anything for the devil. But every man has sinned and come short of the glory of God.

"Now, I can see it was wrong, but it was honest. But it's been a long time. It's ancient history. We've got to move forward. My door is always open to black and white."

He seemed weary, wistful, then snapped back at the reporter with a menacing scowl. "Don't ask me about that again."

At 63, Wallace is rising again from the Old South, running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor of Alabama. He is nearly deaf and half-blind, still paralyzed in both legs from the 1972 assassination attempt at a Laurel, Md., shopping center.

Much of the rasp and venom are gone from his drawl, but he remains a feisty legend, threading toward primary day, Sept. 7, with polls showing him in a tight race. Now, more than ever, he is desperate for support from the blacks he once blocked at the schoolhouse door.

"We in Alabama are all together now," he told the 25th annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s base in his battles against Wallace in the '60s. "All of us in the same fix. Only a very few can make ends meet."

A black barber whose daughters were barred from grade school by state troopers asked bitingly if Wallace "still cared anything about black children." Wallace professed "love for children of any race," claiming to have sent money to fight hunger in Africa and Haiti.

Another man from the crowd thrust a piece of paper at him and asked him to sign a petition demanding the early release of two black women convicted of voting fraud by an all-white jury in Alabama. He signed it and posed for a picture with the petition-seeker. A newspaper photographer captured the moment, but Wallace later claimed not to know what he had signed.

"Everywhere I go, people want autographs," he said. "Frankly, I don't know who I have my picture taken with or what I sign." That incident set back his campaign for black support and unsettled whites who were angered that he appeared to be pandering for black votes.

In the rural outback, some black farmers confound Yankee tourists by sporting Wallace bumper stickers on muddy pickups. "Folks won't hold his old self against him," mused Arthur Gillis, 64, an undecided black farmer who works 12 acres of corn 40 miles outside Montgomery. "As a governor, he was all right. I don't see where things could get no worse."

But Gillis stays too busy plowing to contemplate the Wallace paradox. "I don't know what he meant back then, but it don't bother me none."

What he meant then and what he means now is what most of the delegates were trying to figure out at the SCLC convention earlier this month. "I don't have any qualms about his racial position if he's a changed individual," says Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a former SCLC organizer. "There's an age-old notion that nobody is better for blacks than a converted southerner.

"To see an old hard-shell sinner like Wallace come into the fold is every preacher's dream," Young grinned. "Whether it's really happening or a farce, we won't know for a while. But there is a sense of forgiveness, a feeling that because of his own suffering, Wallace has a new understanding for the suffering of others. I don't know if that translates into votes, but there's no bitterness over the past," said Young.

Even Chris McNair, 56, the editor of a black quarterly magazine whose 11-year-old daughter, Carol Denise, was one of four children killed in the 1963 bombing of a black church here, does not blame Wallace. "He helped foment the climate of violence, but you can't actually blame him for putting the dynamite down," he says. Still, Wallace won't get McNair's vote. "No man deserves a fourth term as governor."

Yet, many blacks say Wallace unwittingly helped the civil rights movement. "The irony is that we never would have made the kind of progress without a Wallace, although he may not understand that," says Young.

"That's like saying, 'Hitler helped bring the Jews together,' " scoffs state Rep. Alvin Holmes, 42, vice-chairman of the state's black caucus, which has thrown its weight behind Lt. Gov. George McMillan. "But that wasn't Hitler's intention. A man can change like Saul changed on the road to Damascus, but governor Wallace ain't been down that road yet. Ain't no way you can forget what he did. No young blacks are for him, just Uncle Toms."

Ray Evans, a respected pollster known as the self-styled "wizard of Opp," from Opp, Ala., says Wallace's karma bothers enough blacks to splinter the crucial swing vote among the five-man field, which includes conservative Joe McCorquodale, speaker of the state house of representatives; the moderate lieutenant governor; retired attorney Reuben McKinley and former governor James Folsom, a former Wallace foe now penniless and virtually blind. The winner of any runoff will face Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmer, a right-wing Republican who relishes his image as a pistol-packing ex-Marine, more like the old Wallace than Wallace himself.

Opponents have nettled Wallace with ads portraying him as incapable of running the state from a wheelchair. But Wallace elicits rebel yells when he reminds largely working class crowds he ran the state for so long sitting down, he has "forgotten how to run it standing up.

"FDR was elected president four times and he was paralyzed in the legs," Wallace bellows. "Problem in this country is too many politicians in Washington, D.C. been paralyzed in the head. That won't ever happen to me."

Later, in the backseat of his limousine, Wallace asks me, "How do I look?"

"You look good, governor."

"Just 'good?' " he snorts.

"You look good."

He flexes a bicep. "Feel that," he says.

"Hard as a rock, governor."

"I got bigger arms than you got. A sick man don't develop muscles. You think after I got shot six times and nearly died of peritonitis 10 times, I'd do anything to bring me closer to death?"

He has mellowed, beating the deep depression over his handicap, marrying for a third time, a 32-year-old Dolly Parton look-alike named Lisa who sang off-key country tunes for his earlier presidential campaigns with her sister, Mona, an act headlined Mona and Lisa.

It is 100 degrees inside the dusty farm shed in Dothan and the good old boys and their wives are sweating and swatting gnats, sipping Cokes and eating $4 barbecue plates, waiting for their man. "Got me a coin with his picture on it," brags Matt Hughes, 14, leaning on his "Let's Be Proud Again" sign and digging into his pocket. "See where it says, 'George C. Wallace, America's fighting governor.'? I learned all about him in school."

On stage, a fat man with a microphone exhorts the faithful to "tear the roof down when the guvnuh gets here. Show America how we feel, that the guvnuh's gonna to do it one more time . . . Here he comes, the star of the show, the man you came to see, the hon'able GEORGE ('Yeeeeeeeehah!') C. ('Woooooeeee') WALLACE!"

"I'm glad we're putting on such a good show," shouts Wallace, " 'cause we're having this rally covered by The Washington Post, The New York Times and Reuters. They come to see if you going to get rid of George Wallace. But I'm here to tell 'em, 'No such good luck.' But they're sending this campaign to every continent on the earth. Alabama's getting a lot of free publicity. It pays to have a governor who is known."

He reminds his constituents how his fame got them respect."When I was welcomed at 10 Downing Street, they didn't look at me like I was some kook askin' to see the prime minister, they knew who I was."

He takes pot shots at unemployment, high interest rates, special interests. He still stands tall for law and order, sputtering about the "thugs and federal judges who run this country." It is vintage Wallace, the banter of the past now touted by other politicians who perhaps recall his impact.

"I was carrying two states when I was shot running for president in 1972," he boasts, "but I'm not running for president any more."

"Why not?" shouts a fan.

Wallace laughs. "Six shots is enough; I got shot out of politics. I think I'll just stay in Alabama."

Their cheers wash over him, perk him up. He sits straighter in the wheelchair, a red clay populist writing revisionist history, trying to ride nostalgia to the state house. "You elect me your governor again and I'll stand up for America and Alabama!"

Then he is spent and they swarm up to touch him, tell him their troubles, remind him how he once helped them, gave them hope. Some approach with tears in their eyes, on crutches or walkers, stoop-shouldered, in grimy overalls. They are mostly white, working people, many of them laid off in a state with the second highest unemployment rate in the country.

E. C. Gentry, 39, an aircraft technician with four children, drops a $25 check in the bucket, whipping out a laminated card verifying his "charter membership" in the campaign. He has come to thank Wallace for prying loose his unemployment checks when he was laid off back in 1975.

"They were six weeks behind with my checks, so I wrote governor Wallace a letter and asked for help. I'd never met him. In two days, I had six back checks in my mailbox along with a letter of apology from the head of the unemployment compensation division."

Wallace nods at his account. "Call on me again," he says.

Another man, a close friend, talks for a full minute face to face, then realizes Wallace has no idea who he is. "It's George Smoot, governor," says the startled 43-year-old state highway employe.

"Oh, George, of course," says Wallace. "I don't have my glasses on."

"When I used to speak out in the open, I'd always ask a little girl, 'How's yo' mama,' hoping she'd go home and say, 'George Wallace asked about you.' And her mama would say, 'Why I didn't know he knew who I was,' and she'd vote for me.

"I'd ask little boys, 'How's yo' daddy?' And they'd say, 'Daddy's workin', daddy's sleepin', daddy's drunk, whatever their daddy was doing they'd tell me. One little boy says, 'My daddy's dead.' Well, I patted him on the shoulder and said, 'Son, I'm sorry as I can be,' and went to shaking hands, shook his hand again and asked him, 'How's yo' daddy?' And he says, 'He's still dead.'

"I shake hands with a lot of people and sometimes I shake hands with my brothers, my cousins, and don't even know it. Everyone becomes a sea of faces."

He flies into Mobile on a hot Saturday morning in his leased campaign jet and heads for the Ramada Inn to meet party officials, labor leaders, ethnic groups and pitch local businessmen for money before a rally at VFW Post 49. Reporters are barred from flying with him, lest his physical frailty go under the micropscope.

Asked if he has something to hide, press secretary Elvin Stanton, a colorless, beanstalk of a man paid to say no, snaps, "Maybe he does."

In a conference room at the motel, 14 black ministers fidget while they wait for Wallace to arrive. "We want him to admit his past mistakes," says Rev. R. L. Hope, 77, a Wallace coordinator in Mobile, "to help us make the right decision."

The ministers invite me to record the historic footnote, but Wallace wheels in and orders me out. "We havin' a private meeting," he says, "and I'm not going to have a reporter sittin' in here."

"A changed man," pronounces Rev. Hope. "But Mister Wallace was never as bad as many folks think. He was a liberal when he first ran for governor in 1958."

Whipped by an avowed white racist, John Patterson, in that campaign, Wallace is reported to have vowed "never to be out-niggered again." He was not, winning in 1962, then running his cancer-stricken first wife, Lurleen, as a surrogate in 1966. She won, then died in office two years later, one of the most popular governors in state history.

On the stump, Wallace invokes her ghost often, even summoning the press for a ghoulish photo opportunity at the cemetery where he lays flowers on her grave, his third wife and children in tow.

After she died, then-lieutenant governor Albert Brewer was sworn in. Wallace beat him in 1970 in a campaign marked by race-baiting and alleged dirty tricks. Four years later, he would win a third term.

Other ghosts haunt him. Friends say he is still obsessed with would-be assassin Arthur Bremmer, believing the attempt on his life was an unsolved conspiracy. Meanwhile, his second wife, Cornelia, who once bugged the governor's mansion to hear what he was saying about her, has filed a $7 million lawsuit against him, alleging Wallace interfered with her attempt to negotiate a contract for a TV mini-series on her life. Wallace will not discuss his private life.

Montgomery newspapers have savaged him in editorials for hyping his record on industrial development. "Lies, damn lies and Wallace statistics," scoffs Alabama Journal editorial page editor Neal Brogdon. "He's running on a fabricated record. It's outrageous."

On the outskirts of Montgomery, past the "Jesus Is Lord" billboard on the interstate bypass, inside a cavernous furniture showroom converted to his campaign command post, George Wallace barks into the telephone, his hearing aid whining on his desk, his voice ricocheting off walls lined with memories of the past.

There is Wallace as a Golden Gloves champion at 17, lean and mean, in his Air Force uniform, fresh from B29 bombing missions over Japan, Wallace as a young circuit judge, Wallace as a child of the Depression in rural Barbour County with his father, a failed farmer and frustrated local politician. There are framed newspaper headlines trumpeting the crowds he drew in Michigan as a contender for president.

Some say Wallace fought dirty. Flyers falsely portraying an opponent as an alleged homosexual with black support are credited with knocking off Albert Brewer back in 1970. He beat governor "Big Jim" Folsom in 1962 after the popular incumbent appeared to be drunk on television.

Though Wallace denies any foul play, Folsom's people still blame Wallace hit-men for drugging Big Jim's drink. "For what he did to Big Jim, he'll bust hell wide open," says Jim's sister, Big Ruby, and Wallace's former mother-in-law. "If the people of Alabama only knew what he did to Lurleen and my daughter, Cornelia, they wouldn't vote for him for dogcatcher."

"When I was in Washington, people used to ask me, 'How can anyone in Alabama vote for George Wallace?' " laughs Montgomery real estate man and campaign strategist Mike Griffin, 34, political director for Wallace's '72 and '76 campaigns for president. "It's easy to understand if you wait outside his office. He'll talk to a guy in overalls and let corporate bigwigs cool their heels."

Now Griffin reads about Wallace in his daughter's schoolbooks. He has taken his children to the Smithsonian to see the bulletproof podium he lugged during the 1968 campaign. "It's part of history and I had my hands on it," he says, comparing the Wallace campaign trail to "sitting on the sidelines at the Super Bowl."

At the tender age of 23, Griffin was promoted to the executive board of the Democratic National Committee, the only delegate under 30. "McGovern appointed labor leaders and bosses, a bunch of old goats," he says. "But George Wallace only had one slot and he put me in it, Mickey Griffin, a little peckerwood from Alabama. As they say down here, 'I'm for George Wallace ridin' or walkin.' "

The rally is over. Six state troopers assigned full-time by an act of the legislature to guard Wallace and attend to his needs push him toward the waiting black Lincoln. One grabs his ankles, another scoops him up from his armpits, hoisting the candidate onto a plastic board. Wallace slides onto the backseat, spits out the door, takes a swig from his water jug, fires up a fresh cigar and rolls down the window.

A mother nudges her daughter forward with a pen. "She's shy, but she's real smart, going to be a lawyer," says the mother.

"Don't be shy," soothes Wallace. "I'm flattered you want my autograph."

Elated at the turnout, he says, "None of the other candidates dares come here. They'd never fill the place up. Naw, they all go to the Kiwanis Club."

He rides through the rainy night, staring out the window at the office parks and tumbledown shacks, a square-jawed little man with a likeness to actor Edward G. Robinson.

"I never been mean," he says. "Oh, you used to have to talk loud to get 'em to say what we're saying now. But now all the politicians are saying what we said 10 years ago. You don't have to talk so loud anymore."

He can recite all the Florida counties he swept in the '72 primary, how he was cooking. "How can you keep a man off the ticket who carried Broward and Dade counties?" he asked. Hubert Humphrey's staff was talking to his people about an HHH-Wallace ticket before he was gunned down, he says.

In 1974, Humphrey wrote him to say he appreciated "the fellowship and friendship that can develop even out of controversy." Wallace framed the letter, showing it off as evidence of his legitimacy. Later, before he died, Humphrey phoned to say, "It's going to be a good year for you and a good year for me," recalls Wallace. " Walter Mondale told me it was his way of telling people goodbye."

He warms to the past. "Humphrey and I knew McGovern would wreck the party and he did. Then McGovern wanted me to endorse him in Montgomery. But I was too sick and, besides, I wasn't an antiwar McGovern man." (Wallace once threatened to run over Vietnam protesters with his limousine.) "Then McGovern blamed his loss on 'Wallacism.'

"If I hadn't been shot, I'd have been on the [Democratic] ticket in '72 as either the top man or vice-president and the ticket would have won."

He stares out the window, falls silent. "But that's what might have been. As one of the great poets said, 'The saddest of all is what might have been.' "