Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy, the first woman to lead a Mississippi Democratic primary for governor, is a study in contradiction, an odd survivor in the rough-and-tumble world of Deep South politics.

On the surface, she is the epitome of a very proper southern belle. She is tall and thin and as fragile looking, some say, as a magnolia blossom.

But after three decades in politics, she has proved herself a shrewd, calculating politician, and has been elected more times to more offices than any other woman in Mississippi history.

The big question after Tuesday's Democratic primary, in which Gandy topped five male challengers, is whether she can continue her remarkable political career with a win in the Aug. 28 runoff against veteran campaigner William Winter.

With almost all the ballots counted, Gandy, 58, had 30 percent of Tuesday's vote. Winter, a former lieutenant governor, had 25 percent. Trailing were former state representative John Arthur Eaves with 19 percent, Jim Herring, a former district attorney from Canton 18 percent, state Rep. Charles Deaton 5 percent and Richard Barrett 2 percent.

The winner in the runoff will oppose Republican Gil Carmichael, a Meridian auto dealer who narrowly won the Republican primery, in the Nov. 6 general election. It is expected to be only the second time in the last century that a Republican has had a chance of becoming governor. On the other occasion, in 1975, Carmichael was beaten by Cliff Finch.

Gandy's campaign is expected to focus on whether Mississippi is ready to elect a woman governor. It is an issue she largely avoided during the primary campaign as she allowed her opponents to battle among themselves as she stood above the fray.

In the primary, voters showed much more interest in the hotly contested local races for courthouse jobs than they did for the gubernatorial races.

In the end, they went with familiar political names.

Gandy has been a low-profile fixture on the state political scene since she went to work as an office assistant to the late Sen. Theo G. Bilbo (D-Miss.) 34 years ago. She has been a state representative, state treasurer and insurance commissioner.

Winter, the loser in two previous bids for the governorship, has been a major supporting player in state politics for two decades. During the heat of the civil rights movement, he stood virtually alone among state officials in calling for a reasoned approach to federal civil rights legislation.

That stand won him the label of a liberal, which is akin to political death in this state.

Until a few months ago, he appeared to be finished in politics. But when a spring public opinion poll found his name-recognition still strong in the state, he made a last-minute entry into the race. By that time, however, many of his former supporters were committed to other candidates.

Tradition favors Winter in the runoff. The winners of Democratic primaries here have generally fared poorly in two-candidate races. But Gandy has shattered tradition before. And she is reaping the harvest of three decades of personalized campaigning in which old friendships and kinfolk are key factors.

She also has the backing of organized business and professional women. Her stance on women's issues, however, is somewhat confusing. At one point in the primary campaign, for example, she endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment. Later, she said it was a matter best left up to the legislature.

"Miss Evelyn," as she is called, tries to avoid mention of her sec in campaigning. "I never talk about it unless someone brings it up," she says. "I always respond by saying I'm running on my qualifications and experience."