The Rev. Ernie Mills, who runs a rescue mission for alcoholics in nearby Durham, focused the issue squarely in terms of sin and money.

"It's the bootleggers and beer-joint owners that want liquor by the drink so they can pad their pockets," he warned a group of North Carolina legislators a few weeks ago.

Other Baptist ministers were equally vociferous in their opposition to allowing persons to buy mixed drinks anywhere. It was bad enough, they said, that liquor is sold in any form in the state. Allowing mixed drinks, one preacher argued, would result in the "Mafia coming in here and running our restaurants."

Today, after weeks of intense lobbying, including some sharp Sunday sermons last weekend, the preachers prevailed. They had lined up enough votes in the North Carolina House of Representatives to block the fifth attempt in eight years to liberalize the state's liquor laws.

Backers of the liquor-by-the-drink drive, rather than face the humiliation of a recorded vote, elected to send their bill back to committee to remain for at least another year.

Not everyone was pleased with the outcome.

"This damn state," said one aide who has been known to make the rounds of legislative parties with a glass of demon rum in her hand, "I don't know why I live here."

North Carolina, which has never ratified the 1933 amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealing Prohibition, is the only state east to the Mississippi in which the purchase of a drink of liquor, be it Scotch and water, a Tom Collins or whatever, is prohibited by law. Only Oklahoma has liquor laws as prohibitive.

Under North Carolina's laws dating back decades, the best a partisan of, say, bourbon and branch can do is bring a bottle, wrapped as required by law in a paper bag, to a licensed restaurant or private club. There, the patron must purchase whatever he fancies to add to warm liquor and mix it himself.

Some of the proponents of the liquor drive, mostly urban legislators whose districts would probably benefit from increased restaurant and convention trade, were upset at their legislative colleagues.

"It ain't that the Baptist are so strong," said Rep. Roy Spoon of Charlotte, one of the leaders of the pro-liquor drive. "There are simply a lot of legislators here whose backbones aren't."

Restaurants owners, tourism promoters, chambers of commerce and other business interest view the laws as archaic.

But four years ago, when the legislature sent up a statewide referendum on liquor by the drink, a group of Baptist ministers, led by the Rev. Coy C. Privette, who later ran unsuccessfully for governor, stumped the state like circuit riders. Moving from town to town, they denounced liquor by the drink as "fat-cat legislation" and warned of infiltration by organized crime if the measure passed. The voters surprised industry advocates by defeating the liquor proposal 2 to 1.

This year, liquor proponents tried again with a narrowly drawn bill allowing cities and counties to decide on an individual basis whether licensed restaurants could sell mixed drinks. They almost succeeded.

They won approval in the state Senate, partly by some old-fashioned political horsetrading. Two senators lukewarm to the liquor bill supported it after extra money for a project in their district - the state zoo - was added to the state budget.

Another senator, one of the more conservative legislators, voted for the liquor bill after several moderate and liberal lawmakers agreed to back off, from opposing an anti-pornography bill he was sponsoring.

The horsetrading provoked one newspaper cartoonist to draw a North Carolina legislator examining a piece of legislation entitled "Porno by the drink."