In his quest to be mayor, urbane Andy Young, former ambassador to the U.N., plows through lunch after lunch of rubber chicken, jousts in debate, rouses an elderly tenant group with a gospel favorite, calms a drunk in a trendy white bar, and hunkers down at a pool table with pained Vietnam veterans, dispensing understanding. On the stump, he radiates grace under pressure.

Sometimes, he yawns.

"In 1964, I was in the middle of a civil rights demonstration in St. Augustine, Florida, where people were getting clobbered he was clubbed and thrown in jail and I yawned," he says. "Being cool has always been a means of survival in controversial situations for blacks. As a child, my daddy used to shadow-box with me to teach me not to have a temper. 'Don't get mad,' he used to say, 'get smart.' "

Many are confused by Young's laid-back campaign persona, which does little to erase the widespread belief that he really doesn't want the job. At times he seems downright bored as he moves about this strife-weary city, pumping hands, trying to convince voters he has come home again because he has a "vision" for Atlanta and really wants to command City Hall.

He rarely gets excited on the stump, even though he leads a seven-candidate pack in two polls with a month to go in the race. And he's leading despite a virtual money freeze from white business leaders who have put their bucks behind a white state legislator.

Young's ability to hold onto his lead will determine whether the New South's largest city anoints its second black mayor in history--a job that serves as a political symbol of hope for blacks nationwide--and whether Atlanta clings to its reputation for racial moderation after two turbulent years of murders of black children and youths. It is a race where the personalities of the three major candidates, who differ little in political philosophy, overshadow issues.

Young's name recognition is high, but his style hardly helps convert undecided black voters like Jesse Thomas, 45. Like many, Thomas finds it hard to believe that the acclaimed civil rights leader and ex-congressman, who stirred controversy and made headlines as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Carter, now yearns to fix potholes and make the garbage trucks run on time.

"The mayor's job is a demotion for someone who has been an ambassador," sniffs Thomas, a $5-an-hour factory worker.

"Some people just don't believe me when I say I want to be mayor," concedes Young. "Some say, 'Why step down to be mayor of Atlanta?' But it's no step down. Atlanta is a $1 billion corporation with 8,000 employes. It's a city that has always led the way, especially in race relations. It's a challenge."

Thomas mulled it over as he clutched a competing campaign flyer, just handed to him by A. Reginald Eaves, 47, a black Fulton County commissioner running third behind Young and veteran state legislator Sidney Marcus, 53, a respected white liberal who enjoys biracial support. Eaves' workers fanned out, moving door to door and pasting up bumper stickers as their man worked the project.

Eaves grabbed a microphone and, with disco music providing the beat from the back of a red pickup, told voters that he had stopped a tradition of white police brutality as the former public safety commissioner. Eaves resigned under fire from the commissioner's job after a scandal involving cheating on police promotion exams.

"When police were brutalizing your children, you came to me and we stopped it," he says. He promises to drive criminals off the streets--"the next knock they hear won't be Avon calling, but A. Reginald Eaves"--and urges them to "punch number two and to thine own self be true."

The crowd whoops and cheers, and young women press about to touch him. "Eaves is my man!" sighed Tracy Worthy, 24, a day care teacher. "Andy Young just never hit my spot."

Eaves' ability to excite poor blacks in the projects not only frightens whites, but makes him the "X" factor in the race, the spoiler who could siphon off enough black votes to force Young into a runoff with Marcus. Eaves, to some blacks, is flesh and blood, a local saviour/celebrity who visits them regularly on TV newscasts. Andy Young is the saint, more ephemeral, remembered more as myth than as man.

A recently released poll, conducted for Young by Pat Caddell in late June and early July, showed Young with 31 percent, Marcus with 30, Eaves with 10, other candidates with 4, and 25 percent undecided. A later Marcus poll (July 28-Aug. 5) showed a wider gap: 41 percent for Young, 33 for Marcus, 8 for Eaves, 6 for other candidates and 12 undecided. Caddell's poll gave Young 15 per cent of the white vote and Marcus 15 per cent of the black vote.

Some campaign analysts believe Eaves' popularity isn't accurately reflected in the polls or his paltry $125,000 campaign war chest. Larry Woods, Marcus' press secretary, asserts that Eaves might upset Young, forcing a showdown between Eaves and Marcus. But Young aides discount Eaves, predicting victory without a runoff at best, and a landslide win if forced into a runoff with Marcus.

They insist that blacks will get solidly behind Young by Oct. 6, election day, as they did behind Maynard Jackson (a staunch Young supporter) in 1973, when Jackson became the city's first black mayor with a solid black vote and 20 per cent of the whites.

Young's strategists fret more over their modest $250,000 in contributions, which lags behind Marcus' total by at least $100,000, sources say. Some accounts put Marcus' money closer to the $500,000 mark. And Young claims he has been virtually cold-shouldered by powerful downtown business leaders who abandoned the tradition of hedging their bets to support Marcus, who has a liberal record in the state General Assembly.

"A lot of business leaders just feel we need a white mayor to get the city moving again, to get the city back in step with business, like in the '60s," explains one downtown lawyer.

Such comments don't mean all Marcus' backers are racially motivated. He counts in his fold conservative whites, some white liberals who supported Young for Congress, many blacks who benefited from constituent services and staunch black supporters like former Atlanta NAACP president Lonnie King.

"Andy and Reggie are fine people, but they wouldn't be able to get the good old boys in the state legislature to look favorably on Atlanta when it came money time," argues King. He views Marcus as the best coalition candidate.

Of the downtown power brokers who shunned him, Young maintains, "I can win without them, but I can't govern without them." He believes downtown banks are holding back because they see him as a clone of Jackson, a close friend whose 8-year cold war with downtown business leaders began when he asked them to find a public safety commissioner, then ignored them and appointed Eaves, his former Morehouse college chum.

But Young's style differs from Jackson's. He woos the business leaders with quiet logic, ever the negotiator, an outspoken peace-maker who sometimes steps on his tongue in candor. He concedes that political hardball isn't his best game. Asked if he aims to get even if elected, he shrugs and says, "Being vindictive doesn't pay. I don't believe in punishing enemies, just rewarding friends."

Still, he vows to "hold their feet to the fire" to pour risk capital into developing inner city neighborhoods.

So Young stays busy pitching that he can best represent blacks and whites and lead a booming Atlanta into the 1980s, Reaganomics or not. Atlanta without Andy Young as mayor would be a "tragedy" for a black-majority city, and a setback for blacks across the nation, says state Sen. Julian Bond, a supporter.

"If Andy loses and Sidney wins, blacks around the country will wonder, 'Maybe we can't do it here, maybe our black candidate ought not to run,' " Bond says.

While the city has suffered white flight in the last decade, swelling black voter registration to 58 per cent, it enjoys a mini-building boom downtown, a prosperous new airport and a steady convention trade--in spite of two tragic years of murders and fear of crime. The killings of young blacks have not been mentioned in the campaign, which has been above-the-belt except for a letter to voters from Young's campaign treasurer, a white millionaire, reminding them that Eaves makes most whites uneasy.

And Marcus has been tweaked by darkhorse Warren Shulman, a former CIA agent turned lawyer who has accused Marcus in radio ads of tardiness in paying property taxes. The other candidates remain politically inconsequential.

Young, meanwhile, preaches his "International Solution" to local economic ills, as he did the other evening in a Buckhead bar awash with the same kind of young white liberals who helped send him to Washington in 1973 as the first black congressman from Georgia since Reconstruction.

Under Andy Young, Atlanta will have its own foreign policy, he says. And, with an Italian beer in one hand, he outlined how the respect he enjoys in Africa and trade contacts he made as ambassador will pay dividends in jobs and business and make up for any Reagan cutbacks.

He then promises to lure suburbanites downtown on weekends by providing "a little more fun," cordoning off Peachtree Street for roller skating and sidewalk vendors. "There ought to be more things people can do that are neither immoral, illegal or fattening," he quips, "things that visitors from Sioux City can't do back home."