Harold A. Covington is a little-known 26-year-old Nazi who preaches white power and says whites in America must "rebarbarize" and fight for survival.

Last week, 56,000 Republicans in North Carolina -- or 42.8 percent of those voting -- said they wanted him to be the Republican nominee for state attorney general. He won a majority in 45 of the state's 100 counties.

The Republican Party says it was all a terrible mistake, but the fact that Covington, the head of the National Socialist Party of America, lost to former U.S. attorney Keith S. Synder has done little to ease the party's embarrasment.

Covington's showing is widely attributed here to uninformed and careless voting. Covington said he was surprised by the size of his vote, but boasted that "there are many closet Nazis in the Republican Party." There is little evidence here to support that, however.

The election results, nevertheless, brought a frest burst of attention to Covington, who had entered the Republican primary as a tactic for advancing his white power cause and furthering his expressed desire to "undermine, subvert, confuse or otherwise disrupt the existing order."

Using Raleigh as a base, Covington four years ago formed a group called the National Socialist Party of North Carolina, which he said consisted of five or six people. Late last year, Covington became national leader of the Nazi organization, taking over from Frank Collin, who had gained notoriety earlier with a planned Nazi march through Skokie, Ill.

"We follow Adolf Hitler because he was a great white man, not because he was a German," said Covington, who has sought to enhance his organization's visibility by forming an allience with elements of the Ku Klux Klan and by running for various public offices.

When Covington and a Klan group staged a "Hitler fest" rally in nearby Johnston County in April, about 125 people showed up, including 50 law enforcement officers and news reporters.

When he ran for mayor of Raleigh last year, Covington recieved only 172 votes out of 24,000 cast. In 1978, he ran in the Republican primary for a state legislative seat and got only 885 votes.

After he filed as a Republican candidate for state attorney general, GOP leaders publicly disavowed any connection with the Nazi candidate. State Republican chairman Jackson F. Lee had recruited Snyder into the race in hopes of upsetting Democratic incumbent Attorney General Rufus L. Edmisten, a former aide of Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr., in the November general election.

Lee said that "maybe 5 percent" of Covington's vote reflects racism. Covington may also have benefited from an ornery "against-the-establishment" sentiment.

The most widely held explanation for Covington's showing is that many Republican voters simply did not know what they were doing. Neither candidate campaigned much and the contest attracted little media attention.

Thus, said Lee, many voters went to the polls vaguely aware of the Covington name as a result of his previous exposure on television and in the newspapers. "There was word going around that a Nazi was running and Snyder sounded more German than Covington," said Lee.

The GOP primary was restricted to the approximately 600,000 registered Republicans in North Carolina. No independent or Democratic crossovers were allowed.

Covington has proved adept at drawing attention to himself, while the news media here have been reluctant to focus on him for fear of giving him additional publicity.

The rhetoric of belligerency is a Covington staple. He said that white people must shed feelings of guilt and "stop running and turn and fight."

"The white man has gotten too damned civilized," said Covington. "That's what I mean by rebarbarize. We've got to recover a positive aggression . . . This may sound silly, but being a Nazi means never having to say you're sorry."

Covington, a native of Burlington, N.C., traces his radicalization back to clashes with blacks during the early 1970s in an integrated high school in Chapel Hill. In the army, according to his account, he joined a "white servicemen's league" and accepted an early honorable discharge after getting into a tavern brawl with blacks.

In 1972 and 1973, Covington said, he lived in Arlington, Va., while editing the newspaper "White Power" published by the National Socialist White People Party. In December 1973 he traveled to southern Africa. After a series of jobs in Salisbury and Johannesburg, Covington said, he joined the Rhodesian army for 18 months.