ATLANTA -- It was such a plausible idea: put all the southern states together on a single date early in the presidential primary calendar. Create a massive counterweight to those Yankee usurpers, Iowa and New Hampshire. Line up a massive prize of 1,307 Democratic and 803 Republican delegates -- roughly two-thirds of those needed for nomination -- and watch the candidates swarm like bees to nectar.
The Democratic legislative leaders and governors who concocted Super Tuesday cannot be faulted for their logic. But as we approach March 8, it's not working out at all the way they hoped.
Until a few days before the voting, you could call an information operator in this, the South's metropolis, and be told there was no telephone listing for the Democratic candidate supported by the largest number of southern congressmen, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.
Georgia Democratic chairman John Henry Anderson and many of his counterparts in other Dixie states predict that Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, with more big-name Dixie supporters than anyone else, will finish fourth of the four active candidates next Tuesday.
Gore, the only candidate who was lured into virtually bypassing the leadoff caucuses in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire by the promise of Super Tuesday, ''will have the most endorsements and the fewest votes'' in Florida, said 1986 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Pajcic. Barring a late rally, Super Tuesday is more likely to bury Gore's hopes than to lift him into contention.
''If this turns out the way I think it's going to,'' said veteran South Carolina Democratic national committeeman Donald Fowler, ''Jesse Jackson and Mike Dukakis are going to get more delegates than anyone else out of Super Tuesday. And I'm going to call a news conference on March 9 and say, 'I told you so.' ''
Two and a half years ago, when Democratic leaders of the Southern Legislative Conference, backed by several of the region's key governors, began the drive to have all of the southern delegates chosen on the same date in 1988, Fowler was one of the few dissenters.
A veteran of many past Democratic rules commissions, Fowler was quoted in this column and many others as warning that the strategy was seriously misconceived.
If the thought was -- as such Super Tuesday proponents as former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb said -- to free the 1988 candidates from the influence of the liberal special interests that exercised inordinate influence in Iowa and New Hampshire and return the Democratic Party to ''the mainstream,'' Fowler said they had better think again.
The winners of the southern presidential primaries in 1984, he pointed out, were liberals Jackson, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. With every passing year, political scientist Fowler said, the turnout in Democratic primaries in the South included larger numbers of blacks, Hispanics, teachers, environmentalists, government employees, feminists and other activists.
Turnout is likely to be very low in states where a March 8 primary is a novelty, Fowler warned. With half the states having no party registration, a significant number of conservative whites may be drawn into the torrid Republican contest. The result, he noted, would be even greater impact for blacks and liberal activists on the Democratic side.
As the campaign enters its last week, many other southern Democrats are betting, ruefully, that Fowler will be proven right. Events may confound the predictions, but at the moment Fowler's 1985 dissent has become 1988's conventional wisdom. The guessing is that the South will give a boost to the two most liberal candidates in the active Democratic field, Jackson and Dukakis.
That is good news to some, bad news to others. What is worse for the South is that in a perverse way, because of Super Tuesday, most of the candidates will know less of the South, its people, its potential and its problems than they would have if the region's Democratic politicians had not gotten infatuated with their Super Tuesday power play.
With 14 southern and border states (plus six outside the region) voting in a batch, the visiting candidates of both parties have had time only to skim the surface of this vital, diverse region. They have touched down in the enclaves of their natural supporters, hittingthe major metropolitan areas, television studios and satellite centers. But they haven't gotten off the interstates and into the heart of Dixie as they might have if they were campaigning in a handful of southern states this month, a few more in April and the rest in May and June.
Lannie Griffith, the director of George Bush's southern campaign, said, ''Super Tuesday is going to be a big event in terms of delegates, but it's not a big event for our voters. It's just been too big and too quick. . . .''
The South is too big, too complex and much too important to be kissed off in one day, and then forgotten for the rest of the primary campaign. Let's hope this is the last Super Tuesday.