COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Pat Robertson is wearing battle gray here. He has unfurled the symbolism of the Lost Cause and is steadily marching across a long valley into the steel of the Bush forces massed at the Statehouse. The percussion will take place on Saturday in this early Republican primary, which may set the tone for the rest of the Southern primaries on Super Tuesday.

"We're going to land on the shore and burn the boats," said Robertson, upon entering the state.

"This is Armageddon," says Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager, who has encamped in the governor's office for the duration. "If we win South Carolina, we break everyone's back." And the polls suggest that the back about to be broken is Pat Robertson's.

South Carolina has been a model for a Republican realignment in the South. But now many of the evangelical voters that Ronald Reagan called forth (and that Jimmy Carter called forth before him) have been mobilized by Robertson.

The irony of this bit of Southern history is that Atwater has been the chief strategist of the Republican awakening here. For a decade, he courted the religious right, bringing fragments of the old, white Democratic Party into the ranks of the new GOP: the former George Wallace voters, the alienated mill workers, the unwavering fundamentalists. But some of these constituencies have now got a mind of their own -- Pat Robertson -- and they are on a holy crusade against Atwater's candidate.

When Robertson accused the Bush campaign of contriving to break the news of Jimmy Swaggart's fall from grace in order to undermine the Robertson campaign, there was a method to his apparent madness. Though he has thus far failed to produce documentation, Robertson has revealed a keen sense of the architecture of the South Carolina GOP.

"What goes around, comes around," says Don Hayes, a Robertson campaign operative, who has worked in the past with Atwater on local elections.

"If this weren't a serious race, it'd be funny. Everybody'd be laughing," says Gov. Carroll Campbell, the bastion of Bush support in the state, whose career has been guided by Atwater. "But this is not a funny situation."

Campbell looks at a stack of bills on his desk awaiting his signature, and then gazes upward. "We're building a party in this state," he insists, beseeching the ceiling. "This is not funny."

On the edge of Columbia, off the interstate, the brand-new Embassy Suites Hotel is a monument to the New South: money, modernism and homogeneity. In the atrium, at the brass-and-marble-appointed bar, fashionably attired young couples cracked offhand jokes about Swaggart's peccadilloes while ordering another round of white wine spritzers.

About 10 yards away, 500 Robertson followers crowded into the ballroom to hear their champion. A banner was strung across the platform: "Recapturing the Greatness of America Through Moral Strength." Suddenly, the lights blacked out. A spotlight shone on a local beauty queen. Violins were heard, then a humming male chorus, bells. All rose for the national anthem, a version with a novel ending: "See freedom's dream!"

Rosey Grier, the former football great, bounded forward to explain how the dream would be made real. He had once campaigned for Robert F. Kennedy. "I realize that today, though he might have been a great president, there is only one force and power that is necessary to be great, the relationship with our Creator," said Grier. "Pat Robertson cares . . . America needs a godly man."

The band sounded the theme from "Rocky." Enter the former pugilist, Pat Robertson.

His self-presentation was as a Virginia cavalier, in the succession of Confederate leaders, come to restore certain values: "I was the only one born in Stonewall Jackson's birthplace," he said. "I'm the only one who went to the school where Robert E. Lee was president. The South is going to lead America. And South Carolina is going to lead the South!" As shouts of "Hallelujah!" and "Amen!" echoed, he smiled his fixed smile.

In this political Armageddon, Robertson has placed his campaign in the hands of Richard Quinn, 43, a seasoned local political consultant who directed Reagan's media campaign in South Carolina in 1980 and operates out of a small warren of offices in the rear of the Copy Shop on Gervais Street, about a mile from the Statehouse. He is a man for all media: print, radio, television. And more than that. He also happens to be the editor of a magazine of specialized interest -- The Southern Partisan -- the journal for the new neocons: call them the neoconfederates.

The Southern Partisan, with a circulation of 15,000, is wildly uneven, ranging from antebellum nostalgia to lengthy disquisitions on such subjects as "The Dark Side of Abraham Lincoln." In that piece, associate editor Thomas Landess, currently an official at the Department of Education, writes:

"Because of Lincoln's policies the cemeteries of the nation were sown with 600,000 premature bodies . . . Indeed you might say he {Lincoln} staked his political future on their sacred honor, and in so doing impressed his face forever on the American penny."

The advertisements in the magazine feature Confederate kitsch (prints depicting "Southern Steel") and pleas to save the Confederate battle flag ("No other symbol so appropriately characterizes the soul of the South").

And yet the magazine publishes occasional articles of literary and scholarly distinction. It upholds a particular reading of the Southern agrarian tradition, a belief that the South cradles enduring values threatened by the metropolitan North.

"The magazine is about the soul of the South," says Quinn. "There are traditions for respect for the land, family integrity and honor, a strong belief in God and the power of prayer . . . The South has historically been given the guilt of slavery. People seem to forget that slavery was an economic transaction, shipped in through Northern ports and sold to Southern planters . . . To understand the Old South it's much more important to understand religion."

If the neoconfederates have a theoretician, he is M.E. Bradford, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Dallas and a member of the advisory board of The Southern Partisan. He is a gentleman, a scholar and a Lincoln-hater who once compared the Emancipator to Hitler.

In the early days of the Reagan administration, Bradford's conservative followers promoted him to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, but when his writings were circulated by detractors, he was denied the appointment. In 1968, Bradford ran the Wallace campaign in Dallas. Today, he supports Robertson. "In the South," Bradford says, "he looks and sounds like a public man, a gentleman, and, even though an evangelical, his demeanor is that of a person of good family."

Quinn himself is reluctant to connect The Southern Partisan to the Robertson campaign. "You understand my hesitance," he says. "We're talking about Pat Robertson. The Partisan doesn't have anything to do with it . . . We can continue this discussion on March 6" -- the day after the primary.

But he continues. "Pat," he says, "is a good Southerner and would be the candidate of choice on issues, if the Southern voter is able to focus on the issues and not on the material being ventilated in the media these days." Like the transgressions of Swaggart.

The Robertson campaign is consumed with the idea that the candidate is tainted as a former television evangelist and that because of this many voters dismiss him out of hand. So the campaign has attempted to counter the image by casting Robertson as everything but an evangelist.

"People will not allow themselves to be victimized by this guilt-by-association idea," claims Quinn. "Gary Hart's monkey business didn't make them wonder if George Bush was having similar problems. The electorate is not going to judge Pat on what some other guy does."

And what will the voters hear, if they care to hear Robertson? What they have heard so far -- statements about missiles implanted in Cuba, knowledge by the Christian Broadcasting Network of the whereabouts of hostages in Lebanon and the charge that the Bush campaign was behind the Swaggart revelations -- seems to have created a sound barrier between the candidate's message and the electorate.

Still, the themes that course through his South Carolina campaign are those of a Southern partisan -- a neoconfederate. A flier, produced by Quinn, to be inserted in most newspapers in the state, reads: "In the words of a Southern General who was inspired by the sight of Stonewall Jackson as he stood firm against overwhelming odds 'Let's Rally Round the Virginian.' "

"The Southern theme here is important," says Quinn. "Pat is the only born and raised Southerner. The only issue is whether these values will be able to defeat the Robertson negative built up on the religion issue . . ."

On the surface, the neoconfederate imagery might seem an eccentricity, an appeal to nostalgia without reference to reality. "It is a minority within a minority," says Earl Black, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. "A fringe," says one of the governor's aides.

But the Southern Partisan editor's appropriation of Confederate iconography on behalf of Robertson is not intended to isolate him, but to expand his appeal; for in South Carolina, though it has recently had a progressive Democratic governor in Richard Riley, the symbolism is hardly interred.

The Palmetto State, of course, was the first to leave the Union, and today, the Confederate battle flag still flies atop the Statehouse, beneath the state and U.S. banners. On the second floor of the Capitol, between the House and Senate chambers, stands a statue of John C. Calhoun, the towering South Carolinian of the 19th century -- an intellectual defender of slavery who laid the groundwork for secession. On a six-foot-tall slab of marble near the Calhoun statue is engraved South Carolina's declaration of secession. Are these mere artifacts of history, or representative of something contemporary?

The NAACP, for its part, has objected to the Confederate flag. And state Sen. Glenn McConnell, a young Republican from Charleston, has made its flying in perpetuity his cause. "That flag," he says, "means too many good things to too many people. It is not an emblem of racism or slavery." McConnell's office is decorated as a Confederate shrine, with portraits of Southern generals and five different Confederate flags. This is not necessarily a debate about the past.

In the 1984 gubernatorial race, the flag was made an issue by the Republicans. The Democrats failed to rally round. "That helped switch some votes that never voted Republican," says McConnell.

The controversy over symbolism carried over to the new GOP governor's inauguration, when blacks objected to the playing of "Dixie," which was stifled. "I still hear it mentioned," says McConnell. "The demands of a few should not have ruled the moment."

Asked about the Confederate imagery, Campbell says: "We're the only part of this nation that has lost a war . . . You don't call it a fringe. It's part of the South, a regional pride." Later, an aide clarified that the governor was referring to "Civil War buffs."

But even supporters of George Bush attempt to claim some Confederate bona fides for him, however attenuated, to make him "one of us." "Texas seceded prior to Fort Sumter," says John Corson, a Republican state senator and Bush backer, about Bush's adopted state. "That's important to Bush. People are aware of those sorts of things."

Wrapping oneself in the Confederate flag gives historical roots to the newly emergent and the previously suspect. But the neoconfederacy embodied in the Robertson candidacy is more than the whistling of "Dixie." It is a radically different vision of the GOP, a challenge to the party as it has developed over the past generation.

The New Breeds The conflict between Bush and Robertson in South Carolina may be seen as irrepressible. It was present in the beginning, in the soil in which the modern Republican Party here grew.

In 1948, when the Democratic convention for the first time adopted a platform position in favor of civil rights, then-governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina seceded. His rebellion took the form of the Dixiecrat Party, which won 39 electoral college votes, shattering the Democratic Solid South. In 1964, as a senator, Thurmond jumped parties to support Barry Goldwater for president. The shift of allegiance of the state's political avatar made it acceptable for others to do likewise. And Thurmond's adroit moderation on the racial issue blunted the challenges to his incumbency. But he was increasingly a figurehead for the GOP that he had helped make possible.

In 1978, Thurmond's reelection campaign against the leading progressive Democrat, Charles (Pug) Ravenel, was managed by a hotshot young University of South Carolina graduate, Lee Atwater. As Thurmond was sent around the state making personal appearances, the apparatus of the modern campaign was set in place: direct mail, phone banks, computerized polling, targeting of voting groups. Thurmond believed that his charisma, as always, carried the day. "He wasn't aware of what was done," says Prof. Black, who was Atwater's political science teacher.

That same year, Atwater began to direct the rise of Carroll Campbell, a new breed of Republican with the blow-dried look of middle management. Campbell ran for Congress from the state's 4th District against Greenville Mayor Max Heller, a Jewish immigrant who had fled Nazism. A third candidate in the race, Don Sprouse, an evangelical, attacked Heller for his refusal to "believe Jesus Christ has come yet." Campbell won.

When Campbell ran for governor in 1984, Atwater and Campbell denied any involvement with Sprouse, but acknowledged that they had conducted a poll to determine voter attitudes. Among the comparative characteristics: "A Christian man . . . Jewish." And: "A native South Carolinian . . . A Jewish immigrant."

In 1980, Thurmond backed John Connally for president. Atwater and Campbell, for their parts, deployed the resources of high-tech campaigning on behalf of Ronald Reagan. (Richard Quinn was contracted as a media consultant.) Four years later, Atwater combined the management here of Reagan's presidential with Campbell's gubernatorial efforts.

The two campaigns were complementary in enhancing the GOP, built on the same social base -- the urban and suburban middle class of the New South, which identified its new wealth with the ascendant party. "They resent having to pay taxes. They're not used to that," says Black. "They perceive the national Democratic Party as the tax-and-spend party, especially when the money is spent on groups they do not esteem. To them, Ronald Reagan is a hero. He is perceived as having delivered."

This party was explicitly assembled without blacks, though without an explicitly racial theme. Now, the Democratic Party was stigmatized as the party of "special interests" and the "bloc vote." In the meantime, the former Dixiecrats and a younger generation of alienated Democrats were mustered by the appeal of post-civil rights social issues: abortion, school prayer, pornography.

When Atwater was named George Bush's presidential campaign manager, with Campbell ensconced in the governor's office he had narrowly won, all seemed to be in place for a consolidation of the Atwater party.

Reagan's Legacy But Bush is not Reagan, though his strength derives from his loyal service. And Reagan has left an unsettled legacy. "The Bush campaign in South Carolina," says Quinn, "is a house of cards. They've tried to build a majority with a whole set of little pieces stacked together. The problem with an edifice like that is that it's easy to collapse. It doesn't have any central integrity."

That integrity in the past was supplied by Reagan, the Sunbelt king. Bush, however, is seen through neoconfederate lenses as no more than a Yankee Republican.

"By background, history and affiliation, George Bush represents the Northeastern banks and the Republican establishment," says Quinn. "We've gotten presidential politics mixed up with the growth of the Republican Party. Every contest for the Republican nomination has been between the conservative wing and the moderate wing. The Southern Republican Party has always had its tradition in Goldwater and Reagan. Bush comes from the Rockefeller wing of the party. That's the part of the party that's always served the bankers."

On the stump, Robertson proudly says, "I used to be a Democrat." Indeed, he was a Democrat as recently as 1976, supporting the born-again Southerner, Jimmy Carter. The shift is not academic, since most Republicans used to be Democrats, including Reagan. Neoconfederate hope rests upon this political transmigration.

"It's a fusing together of the old Southern Democratic ethic -- limited government, respect for the land, trust in God -- with anticommunism and free enterprise," says Quinn. Reagan, in this view, stands as the first fusion candidate. But his speechmaking on the social issues was unmatched by performance. "We thought Reagan was doing that," says Quinn, "but it was more rhetoric than policy."

Robertson, according to his campaign handler, is the real leader of the third stage of Republican growth in the South, after Goldwater and Reagan: "Pat Robertson is a Ronald Reagan who means it." The message has produced a true messenger.

Bush supporters in South Carolina want Robertson's voters without the fire-eating Robertson. Already, they yearn for the past, for the Reagan era. "Robertson takes a white subgroup away from the Democrats. That's a plus," says John Corson. "But he could do tremendous damage. This type thing, leaving a scorched earth, is detrimental to the Republican Party."

Bush is heavily fortified. His identification with Reagan acts as his armor and he has enlisted the ancient standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater. His lead in the polls is enormous. Robertson may be true to his symbolism by waging a Lost Cause. Yet, beyond the primary, it may be that the new Southern GOP has stumbled into a trap set by its own momentum.

"The two glues that bound together the Republican Party in South Carolina were, first, a genuine distaste for big government and deficit spending that has its roots in the Civil War," says "Pug" Ravenel, the Bonnie Prince Charlie of the state Democratic Party, now a Charleston investment banker who wears a gray pin-striped suit and a genuine Confederate Navy belt buckle.

"And, second, an unspoken racism. What has happened is that, in the first, they have found the enemy and it is them. They have had the government for eight years. They are the incumbents; they can't rally against it.

"And, in the second, with the rise of Robertson, the centrifugal force of the inner splits offsets the centripetal force.

"It's wonderful," says Ravenel. "It is delicious to a Democrat."

In the Statehouse, Carroll Campbell sits behind his huge desk muttering: "This is not funny."