Adm. Jeremiah Denton, and ex-POW turned politician, moved through the county courthouse, slapping backs and shaking hands with the red clay brothers he must convert if he is to become the first Republican senator from Alabama since Reconstruction.

He preaches an ultraconservative mantra of military might, free enterprise and fundamental values -- down with abortion, SALT, inflation and premarital sex among teen-agers, which he decries as one of the gravest problems facing America today.

"No nation can survive long unless it can teach its young to withhold indulgence in their sexual appetites until marriage," he says.

Denton scanned the office wall of the local probate judge, Harry D'Olive, no small power in the southwest Alabama outback, and spied a target of opportunity -- a photograph of the Blue Angels, the crack Navy show pilots. Arming a political sidewinder, he zoomed in for the kill. "One of those guys replaced me after I got shot down," he said. Bull's-eye.

D'Olive nodded gravely. "His opponent certainly doesn't have his military accomplishments," said the judge. "But people are starting to ask exactly how much experience does Denton have in government.Not much, I'm afraid. Then they look at the other side of the coin. There's just not much to choose from."

That "other side of the coin" is Public Service Commissioner Jim Folson Jr., 31, son of "Big Jim" Folsom, a former two-term populist governor and colorful Alabama political legend. "Little Jim" is a big Teddy bear of a young man with a two-hour drawl, and he has an easy manner with the country folks in the hills and others who helped his daddy defect the "big mules" of business and industry. He has a consumer-oriented reputation on the PSC.

But, unlike his father's flamboyant populism, Jim Jr. favors looser government regulation of business and he courts Birmingham bankers as easily as the farmers, the blue-collar workers and the blacks he must lure to the polls to keep the Folsom legend out of hock.

Into the power vacuum of Alabama politics, 1980, march these two conservative combatants for the open Senate seat, both upset winners in their respective primaries, both political unknowns.It is a lackluster pas de deux whose Nov. 4 finale will help shape the face of southern politics.

Neither candidate makes the earth move. A Sept. 26 Caddell poll, taken three days after Folsom upset incumbent Sen. Donald W. Stewart (by a mere 6,000 votes out of 40,000 cast), put Folsom seven points ahead of the 56-year-old retired admiral, according to a state Democratic Party official. The same poll gave Folsom 98 percent name recognition (to Denton's 87 percent).A recent Republican-financed poll predicted Denton would win by a hair.

"Who knows? No one can figure it out," says Louise Lindbloom, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "It's too close to call."

Indeed, "Heart of Dixie" politics has turned into a political DMZ where almost anything could happen, and already has. Incumbents have been knocked out in their primaries, swept out by the conservative tide. Folsom whipped Stewart, who had defeated Maryon Allen in the 1978 special election to fill the seat of her late husband, James B. Allen, an ardently conservative Democrat.

"Little Jim," who stands 6-foot-3, (a full head shorter than his father, raised up Alabama's conservative electorate by painting Stewart as a liberal "puppet" of the "great Washington power structure." Stewart had alienated white conservatives by pushing two controversial black judges for the federal bench; he also suffered from a federal investigation into his 1978 campaign finances. The Justice Department cleared him during the runoff, but the damage was done.

In the GOP Senate primary, Denton swamped a seasoned political pro, Washington lawyer Armistead Selden, an ex-congressman, former assistant secretary of defense and onetime ambassador to New Zealand.

TV ads pushed his legned as a patriotic Vietnam war hero, reminding voters how Denton once moved the nation when, after his release from a North Vietnamese prison camp, he stepped off the plane at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and declared in a faltering voice: "We are honored to have served our country under difficult circumstances . . . God Bless America."

"How can you campaign against God and country?" wondered an exasperated Selden supporter.

The Birmingham shock troops of Jerry Falwell's Lynchburg-based Moral Majority helped spread the faith for Denton and and get out the vote. Moreover, Denton was blessed with plenty of Republican cash, including a $1,000 contribution from Richard Nixon.

The Republican National Committee has contributed the maximum, $173,000, to Denton's estimated half-million-dollar war chest. "He's one of the better shots we've got," says political director Scott Covington.

Folsom says he'll be lucky to raise $100,000 for his "people's campaign."

Rep. John Buchanan Jr., a Baptist minister and eight-term Republcian member of Congress who once offered a constitutional amendment to permit school prayer in public schools, also fell victim to the ax of the Moral Majority.

In Buchanan's place, voters in Birmingham's 6th District anointed insurance man Albert Lee Smith, a former John Birch society member who benefited from 2,500 campaign volunteers, a direct-mail campaign and church buses to carry supporters to the polls --- all supplied by the local Moral Majority. Smith captured the conservative Democractic crossover vote that normally went to Buchanan, who rode to victory 16 years ago in Barry Goldwater's southern sweep.

Smith now faces a conservative Birmingham city councilman, Democrat Pete Clifford, who opposes the Equal Rights Amendment and other liberal causes and evokes derision from some in his own party. "The Republican candidate is a Bircher and ours marches in the streets with his own billboard on his back," sighed one despondent state Democratic Party official.