Just a few years ago, Republicans in the South could look back on a decade of steady gains and dream of political domination of the region. Today, they're breaking out their survival kits.

The presence of a Southern Democrat in the White House, especially one who is proving to be more conservative than many Dixie Republican voters expected, makers the problems of the GOP in the South more acute than elsewhere.

Major problems stem from post Watergate losses at the polls that wiped out a decade of growth , the long-range failure of the "Southern strategy," the legacy of Rochard Nixion's willingness to sacrifice party-building in the region to political expediency, a scarcity of able leadership and deep-seated ideological conflict.

Gone is the dream of "realignment," a concept based on an unrealized expectation of mass defection among Democratic office-holders. Of those who did switch, many failed to survive politically. More recently, a steady trickle of elected Republicans have defected to the Democrats across the South.

In 1974, Republicans lost 30 per cent of their seats in state legislatures and 20 per cent in Congress from the 11 states of the old Confederacy - Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi., North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. In 1976, they lost another eight per cent of their legislative seats, setting the party back to its level of strength a decade earlier with only 10 per cent of all legislative seats in the region.

They lost a seat in the U.S. Senate in both 1974 (Edward Gurney of Florida) and 1976 (Bill Brock of Tennessee.)

A close look at the Republican record in state politics during their well-publicized period of growth since the early 1960s reveals further party weakness in the South.Only two of their candidates have been elected to any statewide office below that of governor - a public service commissioner in Florida in 1972 and a lietenant governor in Virginia in 1973.

Unlike the situation a few years ago when they were competitive in several states and had momentum, Republicans pose no threat to take control of any southern state government in the foreseeable future. Although they have won the governor's office at least once in six of the 11 states since 1966, only in Virginia has one Republican governor succeeded another.

The "Southern strategy" killed the chance for the Republican Party to assume a role of reform in the old one party South and attracted the most reactionary elements of the region to the party. That strategy first outlined in a 1961 speech in Atlanta by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in which he declared, "We're not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are." His vote against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave full definition to the "southern strategy."

During a period of social upheaval in the South, the strategy forced Democrats into becoming the party of change in the region. The almost 4 million blacks registered to vote provide a base of support today for progressive Democratic candidates throughout the 11 states.

Brock, the new Republican national chairman, is preaching a different strategy in the South of building at the grass roots and seeking a broader base that includes black voters. His strategy got its first major test last month in Jackson, Miss., where Doug Shanks, a progressive, 30-year-old Republican city councilman ran for mayor. It was one of those cases in which the operation was a success, but the patient died.

Shanks got 40 per cent of the black vote, which is phenomenal for a Republican in the South, but he lost an election that many expected him to win. Shanks ran much weaker than he expected among working class whites. He attributes this to his Republican label.

"We're going to have to change our image of being the party of the rich and the country clubs," shanks said.

But Shanks also was openly opposed by some Republican party activists who viewed him as too liberal and resented his leadership role last year in the forces that won the Mississippi delegation for Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan at the Republican national convention.

"There's a faction that is hellbent on being ideologically pure and would rather be right than win an election," Shanks said. "If that keeps up, the party will go down the tube."

Brock's strategy, which also emphasizes organizing at the precinct level and candidate recruitment, is well-received by many party professionals in the South. But those who flock behind Reagan are unlikely to take any meaningful steps to attract more than a token number of blacks or to welcome moderates such as Shanks.

"The people who I think have the right view of the party have been cold-shouldered," laments Harry dent, former White House political aide who served as Gerald Ford's chief head-hunter among Southern delegates last year and who supports Brock's strategy.

The internal disputes over party policy not only drain energy away the recent Republican record of defeat leave little to attract bright and able young Southerners interested in political careers.

Instead of Democratic office-holders switching parties, some Republicans have begun to switch. In South Carolina, Columbia city councilman Kirkman Finlay Jr. gave Republicans a strong hope of winning the mayor's office in the capital city nest year until he switched in April to the Democrats. He still plans to run for mayor and says he has been "warmly received" by local Democrats.

Finlay and other moderate Republicans in South Carolina had been virtually ignored by Republican Gov. James B. Edwards, the only governor in the nation to support Ronald Reagon last year. On election night, Edwards told party workers the returns that future success was based on returning to the convictions expressed by Goldwater in 1964.

In North Carolina, Republican State Sen. Carolyn Mathis of Charlotte switched to the Democrats this year, blasting those in control of the GOP as "narrow-minded" people who allowed no dissent.

That narrow-mindedness was evident when forces loyal to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)and Roanld Reagan won control of the party in last year's fight for delegates to the national convention and refused to allow Gov. James Holshouser, a moderate who was Gerald Ford's Southern coordinator, to serve as a delegate.

In Florida, state Rep. John Cyril Malloy, who last year became the second Republican ever elected to the legislature from Dade Country (Miami), switched to the Democrats this year, the third Republican legislator to do so in five years. Other legislators have switched in recent years in Georgia and South Carolina.

A major test of Republican stamina in the South will occur next year when terms end for all five Republican senators - Helms, Howard Baker of Tennessee, John Tower of Texas, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and William Scott of Virginia.

Only Baker is expected to win easily.

Tower remains popular in Texas, where political observers believe he could defeat any likely Democratic opponent, but some Reaganites are still angry at his support of Ford last year. Reagon captured every delegate eleced in the state's presidential primary.

The party dominance by ideoloques could cause problems for Tower if Henry Grover, a Reaganite who almost won the governor's office in 1972, makes good on a threatened challenge in a Republican primary, which in Texas attacks a small turnout.

In South Carolina, recent polls show the 74-year-old Thurmond no better than even when matched against Charles (Pug) Ravenel, a reform Democrat. Ravenel plans to announce this month whether he will run for governor or senator next year, but Thurmond already has launched a million-dollar fund-raising campaign.

In North Carolina, the outspoken and well-financed Helms remains popular, but he can count on a strong Democratic challenge. North Carolina National Bank President Luther Hodges Jr., progressive son of a former governor, liberal state Sen. McNeill Smith and Attorney General Rufus Edmisten are all expected to battle for the right to take on Helms.

In Virginia, Scott doesn't plan to run again, and a bloody fight is likely among Republicans in picking their nominee to succeed him. Progressive former Gov. Linwood Holton and ultraconservative former state chairman Richard Obesnhain both are laying plans to run. A third probable contender is John Warner, former Secretary of the Navy.

Virginia elects a governor this year, and populist Democrat Henry Howell is likely to be more difficult to beat than many Republicans expected. In Chuck Robb, Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law, Howell has a now-glamorous running mate with a vested interest in building a strong Democratic party in this state. And Howell, whose political friendship with President Carter is well-established, can claim he can do more for the state than his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. John Dalton.

Within the other Southern states, only in Tennessee do Republicans remain in a challenging position. But they have suffered substantial losses there in the last two elections.

Since 1974, Democrats have regained the governor's office, a U.S. Senate seat, and two U.S. House seats. They also now hold more than 2-1 majorities in both houses of the legislature, where Republicans a few years ago approached a majority.

Elsewhere, Republicans face major rebuilding efforts. Little remains in Arkansas of the $10 million investment made by Winthrop Rockefeller in trying to build a strong Republican party. A new election law in Louisiana will make it difficult for Republicans to get candidates for statewide office on the general election ballot. And in Alabama, not a single Republican serves in the legislature.

In Georgia, where the last Republican congressman was defeated in 1974, the recent election of Atlanta moderate Rodney Cook as GOP state chairman and the election of a black vice chairman signal the beginning of support for Brock's efforts.

If Sen. James Eastland decides to seek reelection next year in Mississippi, Gil Carmichael can be expected to make a serious Republican challenge as a progressive. In 1972, Carmichael, like Winton (Red) Blount running against Sen. John Sparkman in Alabama, was undercut by the White House, Carmichael still captured 42 per cent of the vote against Eastland, and he got 48 per cent in a race for governor in 1975.

In Florida, Republicans have yet to recover from a bitter internal party fight in 1970 between former Sen. Gurney and former Congressman William Cramer, who lost a Senate race that year. Republican membership in the legislature, more than one in three as recently as 1972, is now less than one in four.

The fact that Ford received roughly 45 per cent of the presidential vote in the South last year shows that Republicans have a substantial base upon which they can build. But Brock's plan to build from the bottom may be the only strategy left for the GOP, because so little remains at the top.