A LESSON for our times:

In 1970 in Tennessee, a conservative Republican member of the House ran an emotional, negative campaign against an incumbent "populist" Democratic senator. The Republican emphasized issues like school prayer, busing and the war in Vietnam. He took the Democrat's votes and floor statements out of context to make them look alien to all the people in Tennessee believed in. And he won the race -- Rep. Bill Brock (now a member of the Reagan cabinet) defeated Sen. Albert Gore.

In 1982 in Tennessee, a conservative Republican member of the House ran an emotional, negative campaign against an incumbent populist Democratic senator. The Republican emphasized foreign aid, abortion and amnesty for draft evaders. He broadcast commercials based on distortions of the incumbent's record. And he got trounced -- Sen. James Sasser easily defeated Rep. Robin Beard.

What was the difference? No doubt there were many, but one was overriding. Sasser in 1982 could push aside the emotional single issues and grab the dominant theme of the campaign -- an economy in shambles, a tax system that favors the rich, economic policies that favor big corporations while small businesses go broke in record numbers. Jim Sasser could remind Tennessee voters that while Republicans look out for big business and the wealthy, it is the Democraats who take care of the rest of us.

So it was a contest of us vs. them, the poor and middle class against the rich. There is no older theme in Southern politics, though it was buried under other issues for nearly 20 years. It came roaring back on Nov. 2.

There can be no doubt about the significance of this year's elections in the South, which were much less ambiguous than in other parts of the country. The Republicans suffered a major setback. Of the 26 seats the GOP lost in the House, 14 came in the South. Two of the six governorships lost by Republicans were also in southern states, in Arkansas where Bill Clinton won back the governor's mansion, and, most significantly, in Texas where Mark White beat Ronald Reagan's favorite state executive, Bill Clements. In North Carolina, where President Reagan campaigned personally in the last week of the election and Jesse Helms' Congressional Club invested massive resources, Republicans lost every race.

This happened after 18 years of steadily improving Republican fortunes in the South, slowed only -- and temporarily -- by the success of native son Jimmy Carter in 1976. It happened despite the fact that much of the South has not suffered as much as other parts of the country in the current recession. It happened because bad times remind the South of some of the eternal verities of politics.

During the last 18 years, when social issues and patriotic themes were so prominent on the public agenda, Southerners were responsive to conservative Republican nostrums. But those were good times economically -- better in the South than elsewhere in the country. Good times allowed Democratic voters to listen to Republican arguments and vote for the social agenda.

But when times got bad, it was particularly easy for Southerners who were raised as Democrats to vote their pocketbooks instead of their emotional attitudes. That was the opportunity that successful Democrats exploited this fall.

In Texas, Mark White closed his campaign with a TV commercial that began with a scene of rich people at their country club dining on caviar and champagne. An announcer's voice declared, "For some Texans, the economic picture is rosy" -- a direct quote from Gov. Clements. The scene then cut to Mark White, dressed in blue jeans and standing on the main street of a small Texas town. Said White: "For those people, the picture is rosy, but for those of us here on Main Street, the picture is bleak. Those folks at the country club will vote Republican. If you don't fit in there, then you should vote Democratic."

In Alabama, George Wallace exploited the occasion of a visit by Vice President Bush to a $1,000-a-plate quiche brunch to raise money for Alabama Republicans. Wallace called a counter-event, a $2-a-plate hot dog dinner (the unemployed could eat for free), and asked the crowd how many ordinary folks in Alabama could afford a $1,000 brunch -- and who in the world knew what quiche was? Certainly not George.

Similarly, Democratic candidates who defeated incumbent House Republicans in the South emphasized populist themes and their opponents' ties to big corporate interests and the wealthy. Those were the themes, for example, that led Rick Boucher to victory over nine-term incumbent Republican William Wampler in Southwest Virginia.

Fairness, as Jim Sasser discovered in Tennessee, was the key. No matter how receptive the South may have been to Reagan's ideological generalizations in 1980, this is a region where Democratic economic policy embodied in the populism and public works of the New Deal is still respectable.

Many Southerners see "government involvement" in the economy not just as overregulation and government handouts, but also as help to bring electricity to backward rural areas. TVA and WPA are acronyms still thought of warmly in large parts of the South. It is still possible to sell Southerners on the idea that the government has an obligation to ensure that everyone, rich or poor, get the same break. And so when Ronald Reagan began to dismantle government and to revise the tax code to the benefit of the rich and, apparently, only the rich, the message was not lost on voters in the South.

The lesson of 1982 for the national Democratic Party is simple and important: get on the side of the ordinary people, preach again the gospel of populist economics, and the "solid South" will rise again -- in the Democratic column.