THE NORTH CAROLINA Senate race should dispel once and for all one of the most persistent of Washington myths: that Jesse Alexander Helms is a political dinosaur out of touch with the mainstream of his party and state.

Helms is an innovator, one of the most skilled politicians of our time. He has a genuine affinity with his state, and an innate grasp of how to motivate its voters. He has raised the politics of confrontation and negative campaigning to a high art.

His victory over Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a promising moderate, reestablished him as the nation's preeminent conservative spokesman outside the White House and a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Helms plays by his own rules; he does what is necessary to win without apology. The highminded may find his methods repugnant. But it is a revealing commentary that Hunt and other ideological opponents chose to mimic them this year.

The Helms-Hunt race was one of those rare events that live up to their advance billing. It was the second most important election in the country this year, a great clash of ideology and personality. Seldom are voters given such a clear-cut choice; seldom are two candidates so evenly matched.

The race invited superlatives. It was the most expensive, most technologically-advanced and, some said, the meanest Senate campaign in history. As such, it carries some important lessons for the future of American politics. None of them is pretty.

Lesson: A vicious new electronic form of negative politics has evolved and matured. And it is frightening.

It is a politics of distortion, half truths and character assassination. Ends are used to justify means. Truth often takes a back seat.

The big-money nature of the race made experimentation possible. The Helms camp came up with several innovations. Many voters, for example, were surprised to pick up the telephone and hear the recorded voice of Ronald Reagan on the other end of the line, extolling Helms' virtues. Others received personally addressed letters from citizens in other states, telling them, "As a citizen of North Carolina you have the good fortune of being able to vote for Jesse Helms. I urge you to do so."

But much of the creative energy in both campaigns and the biggest chunk of the $22 million spent in the race went for television commercials stretching over 20 months. Some 7,800 TV spots were broadcast during the last five weeks alone.

The ads took on a life of their own. Hunt would air a commercial attacking Helms for opposing a bipartisan plan to rescue Social Security. Helms replied with an ad of his own. Hunt answered it with another ad; Helms countered with another new ad.

Both sides said they kept it up because it worked. Altogether, Hunt made eight different Social Security ads. "It was rather like a debate. If Jesse Helms didn't respond to one of our ads, he lost a point," said Hunt media adviser David Sawyer.

"People would say they didn't like the negative ads, but our polls showed they changed people's minds. On Social Security you could watch a 10 to 15 percent shift depending on who was on the air."

The nightly tracking polls and the ability of both campaigns to produce commercials almost overnight produced a new kind of electronic politics, impossible a decade ago. Big money enabled the two campaigns to wage a day-by-day, week-by-week debate far more important than the League of Women Voter forums common to most races.

Hunt, for example, wanted to beef up his strength among young women voters. So he ran a commerical on top-40 radio stations that said an antiabortion human-life bill supported by Helms "could outlaw many of the birth-control devices that millions of American women use today -- like the IUD and many forms of The Pill."

Helms tracking polls found the ad damaging the Republican senator, so his campaign produced a new television ad featuring Dorothy Helms, the senator's wife, calling the Hunt ad "disgusting and dishonest."

"Jim Hunt has accused my husband of sponsoring legislation outlawing a women's right to use contraceptive devices including the birth control pill," she said. "That is an outright falsehood . . . . I'd have never believed that Jim Hunt would stoop this low."

It hardly mattered who began the negative attacks. Helms and the National Congressional Club, a political action committee run by his allies, had used negative advertising long before the Senate race began. Hunt forces embraced the same techniques. In the end it was hard to tell who was guilty of the worst smear attacks.

Two commercials aired in the closing days of the campaign are illustrative. One, a 30- second Helms spot, pictured a well-dressed woman in a new car showroom. She said she wanted to buy the shiny, new auto beside her, but wouldn't be able to if Hunt won the election because he would raise taxes $157 a month. A "$157" sign atop the car drove the point home.

The ad was dynamite, slick and persuasive without even mentioning Helms' name. But the charge was false. The $157 tax figure was a phony one, based on inflated Republican estimates of how much Walter F. Mondale's tax increase and spending proposals would cost. And Hunt opposed the proposed Mondale tax hike.

A 30-minute television show Hunt aired on Sunday and Monday before the election portrayed Helms as leader of a "tight, ideological, right-wing political network" with close ties to Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority; Phyllis Schlafly, head of the conservative Eagle Forum; the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, head of the Unification Church, and "right-wing political and military dictators around the world."

The show overstated Helms' ties. Asked to justify the Helms-Moon link, for example, Hunt cited only an article on the race in The Washington Times, which is owned by Moon's church, and a donation made to Helms' campaign by a former editor.

But the big problem was the deceptive way the show was presented. It was produced to look like a network documentary on the race, complete with shots of network anchormen Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. Any viewer who missed disclaimers at the beginning and end of the show might assume he or she were watching news, not propaganda.

Lesson: Never underestimate the politics of personality.

Helms, 63, and Hunt, 47, presented contrasting styles and personalities. After a decade as a television commentator and two terms in the Senate, Helms has a firm image as an antipolitician politician, a man not afraid to speak his piece or take on unpopular causes. His manner is homespun yet courtly; his supporters use words like "statesman" to describe him.

Hunt is a blander man, a consensus politician. In his eight years as governor, he built a solid record of achievement in industrial development and educational improvement, but he is best known as an adroit pol.

Helms' maverick image gave him a Teflon coat; he was more immune to attack than Hunt.

"Helms has placed himself almost beyond the pale. He can say outrageous things and people think it's a badge of courage," observed North Carolina Democratic chairman David Price. "The image of Helms is a combination of the familiar Uncle Jesse together with the angry maverick that sticks it to them up in Washington."

"A lot of people believe everything Helms says is true, and Hunt doesn't have that going for him," said Merle Black, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. "Hunt is viewed as a politician. His ambition is too transparent."

Lesson: Jim Crow politics still work.

Racial epithets and standing in school doors is no longer fashionable, but 1984 proved that the ugly politics of race are alive and well. Helms is their master.

A case in point was the pivotal event of the campaign: Helms' filibuster against a bill making the birthday of the late Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. Eyes rolled in the Senate in October 1983 when Helms launched the filibuster, attacking King for espousing "action-oriented Marxism." Helms lost the battle in the Senate. Even reformed race baiters like Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) lined up against him. But he won the war in North Carolina.

A poll before the filibuster showed Helms trailing Hunt by 20 percentage points. By December, Hunt's lead was sliced in half. White voters who had been feeling doubts about Helms began returning to the fold.

Helms campaign literature sounded a drumbeat of warnings about black voter- registration drives. His campaign newspaper featured photographs of Hunt with Jesse L. Jackson and headlines like "Black Voter Registration Rises Sharply" and "Hunt Urges More Minority Registration."

Helms shamelessly mined the race issue. He called Hunt a "racist" for appealing to black votes on the basis of his support of civil rights measures. His press secretary Claude Allen, a black, tried to link Hunt with "queers." Allen later apologized.

But Helms didn't waver. On election eve, he accused Hunt of being supported by "homosexuals, the labor-union bosses and the crooks" and said he feared a large "bloc vote." What did he mean? "The black vote," Helms said.

Helms received 63 percent of the white vote, according to the Voters Education Project (VEP) in Atlanta, which examined returns in sample precincts. Network exit polls indicate he scored particularly well among whites in small towns and rural areas.

Lesson: White Democrats, even moderates with good civil-rights records, can't count on an overwhelming black vote.

Hunt slaughtered Helms among blacks. A VEP study of 35 almost-all-black precincts showed Helms received less than 1 percent of the black vote.

The black vote -- strengthened by Jesse Jackson's presidential candidacy -- was supposed to be the great new missile in the Democratic Party's arsenal this fall. North Carolina (where blacks make up 22.4 percent of the population, the lowest percentage in the South) was a special target for voter registration efforts this year, because it had a low percentage of blacks registered to vote. Black registration rose 37 percent since early 1983, from 451,000 to 619,000.

To win, Hunt strategists calculated the two-term governor needed one-third of the white vote and a record black turnout. Historically, blacks have made up about 14.2 percent of voters in the state. Hunt aides figured that this would rise to 18.4 percent if the same percentage of blacks voted as whites -- roughly 7 in 10.

Hunt got 37 percent of the white and 98.8 percent of the black vote, according to VEP. But only 61 percent of registered blacks voted, down from 63 percent in 1980, perhaps because there were few close contests this year involving black candidates. Hunt lost 52-48 overall.

Lesson: Those death notices about the New Right were premature.

Hunt took the New Right on over its agenda and leadership. He cast the election as a referendum on "right-wing extremism," and what kind of place North Carolina wanted to be -- a national headquarters for the political right or a "middle-of-the-road, progressive state."

Hunt did demonstrate that a Democrat can compete with the best of the conservative money machines. Helms raised more money than his Democratic opponent ($13 million to $8 million), but Hunt wasn't starved for funds. "Helms is a marvelous devil to raise money against," said Roger Craver, Hunt's direct mail adviser.

Yet Helms didn't back away from his allies, or the New Right causes they espouse. He described the election as a referendum on "the conservative cause, the free- enterprise cause, but most of all the cause of decency, honor and spiritual and moral cleanliness in America."

He accused the press of trying to intimidate Falwell and other fundamentalist Christians, who had come to North Carolina to register tens of thousands of new voters. He pledged to continue his fight to restore prayer in public schools and ban abortion, and promised over and over again not to relinquish his post as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"I am the first North Carolinian in 149 years to serve as chairman," he said. "If North Carolina loses that chairmaship it will lose the tobacco and peanut program as well."

As 30 senators, Vice President George Bush and Ronald Reagan trooped into the state in his behalf, and scores of people lined up asking Helms to autograph their family Bibles, the high priest of the New Right didn't look so dangerous.

But the question remained: What kind of state was North Carolina? And the answer was: one of stark contrasts and schizophrenic politics.

There is, for example, the North Carolina of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle with its great universities, high- tech industries and more PhDs per capita than anyplace in the country. But this is just one of North Carolina's many faces. Its industrial wages are dead last among the 50 states. One-fourth of its adults haven't finished high school. And only two states have more mobile homes.

Helms and Hunt represent two different political currents: a yearning for change and a fear of change, a division over trusting government and wanting government to solve problems.

Voters this time picked the Helms version of the state, but ever so narrowly -- 86,761 votes.

According to ABC exit polls, the two candidates ran neck and neck among young professionals as well as farmers. Helms beat Hunt 59 to 39 percent among born-again Christians as might be expected, but the two-term Republican senator also beat Hunt decisively among voters under 24 and those earning more than $40,000 a year.

A signal had been sent to the world, Helms crowed election night. "North Carolina is a conservative, God-fearing state."

Lesson: There may be a fundamental rejection of the direction of the national Democratic Party underway in the South.

After all is said, the nomination of Walter F. Mondale cost the Democrats the North Carolina Senate seat. The amazing thing was not that Hunt lost, but that he came as close to winning as he did.

The New Deal liberalism that Mondale embraced all his political career is an anathema to many voters in the South. Mondale's tax-increase plan made matters worse. It put Democrats on the defensive, struggling for survival even in states like North Carolina, where the party has a 3-to-1 registration edge.

"The two most decisive factors turned out to be Mondale and taxes," said Charles Black, a Helms consultant.

Helms wrapped himself firmly in Ronald Reagan's coattails; Hunt acted almost embarrassed about his national ticket. When Mondale visited the state, Hunt conveniently found himself on vacation.

Hunt, in national terms, was hardly a liberal. He opposes the nuclear freeze; he supports the B-1 bomber, the MX missile and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.

But he could never shake the charge that he was a "Mondale liberal" who wanted to raise taxes. Helms ran 10-second TV spots that showed the governor saying, "Of course, I'm for Mondale."

Reagan carried North Carolina by a 62-38 percent margin, carrying a new Republican governor and four new GOP congressmen in with him.