A bill to let North Carolinians buy their liquor by the drink cleared its major obstacle in the legislature yesterday. Prospects are that the state will lose its distinction as the only "dry" state east of the Mississippi.

After what seemed certain death Wednesday when the House defeated the bill, 61 to 56, the wets obtained a second vote yesterday. They cajoled and arm-twisted enough reversals to clear the House, 62 to 55.

The fight pitted Baptists and rural legislators against urban lawmakers backed by hotels and restaurant interests hoping to boost the tourism and convention trade with mixed drinks.

The Senate passed the same bill in 1977, 25 to 23, after more than a decade of attempts in the legislature to end the mixed drink prohibition. The House took the bill up this month when the legislature reconvened for a short budget session.

Final passage next week will require Senate concurrence with several House amendments, one of which placed a $10-a-gallon tax on liquor sold over the bar.

If the Senate concurs the bill becomes law, because Gov. Jim Hunt lacks the veto power to stop it.

"No problem, no problem," said Craig Lawing of Charlotte, the big city lawmaker who has led the wets in the Senate.

Lawing and other Senate leaders said they expect to have a dozen or so more votes than last year.

Passage will not immediately start the liquor flowing, however. The measure would allow counnties, which now permit the sale of beer and wine and bottled liquor through state-owned stores, to hold locall referendums on whether to permit the sale of mixed drinks.

In 1973 the pro-liquor forces put the issue to a state-wide referendum and were beaten by more than 2 to 1, carrying only three of the urban counties.

The problem for the wets in the House this week was to win over enough small town legislators, particularly in the industrial Piedmont.

The lobbying of the undecideds has been so intense that the drys accused the wets of offering to pay off the campaign debts of some legislators who switched their votes.

Five drys switched yesterday.

"We had nothing to trade, we had no zoo money, we had no budget money but we did have the people back home," said Marse Grant, editor of the state's major Baptist publication and a leader of the dry forces. The explanation: One legislator who switched to support the bill said he expected the pro-liquor forces to help him get more state money for his local zoo.