Two years ago, he was the man to see to see the president. As White House chief of staff and a top Carter adviser, he charted urban policy with governors and mayors. He dispatched the Navy to rescue Cuban refugees and delivered federal riot aid to Miami.

He was better known in Seattle than Atlanta--and therein lies his dilemma.

Now Jack H. Watson Jr. is just another dark horse for governor, one of nine Democrats scrapping to become caretaker of a state that didn't know who he was until the lean, ex-Marine jogged their memory with TV ads. Eager to make a bang, he's slogging uphill in a sometimes nutty campaign where one candidate tows an electric chair behind his car and warns criminals, "You can come to Georgia and rape and pillage, but you gonna die," and the front-runner, Rep. Bo Ginn, tells drug dealers, "If you're a pusher, meet the shover."

He's hampered as much by the dilemma of how to play his Washington years without turning voters off as by a Harvard Law School pedigree. "I just didn't have the good sense to go to the University of Georgia," he apologized on the stump.

Then there is the "Carter problem," as one aide puts it. His ex-boss, the ex-president, began plugging his ex-aide in 30-second radio spots July 14, but no one is quite sure how the endorsement will play, especially among Georgians who never liked the state's only president. Some advisers fear the ads may hurt Watson as much as help.

"I would never tell you how to vote," Jimmy Carter says, to the rhythm of a schmaltzy theme song. "But I will tell you this. I've worked with Jack Watson for many years. He's a good man . . . a man of action and ideas who cares about people. With your help, he can be a great governor."

But Watson must convince voters he's more than just a Gucci good old boy who worked for Carter. So he's practicing his drawl in towns like Camilla, loosening his silk tie and meeting folks like Edith Shiver, an ex-Miss National Congeniality and a farmer's wife who won top honors in the National Beef Cookoff. She faintly remembers Watson as having gone to Washington with Carter--and what she recalls, she doesn't like.

"Honey," she said, ripping a Watson sticker off her lapel after a candidate forum here, "you better tell people you're not Jimmy Carter. He tried to act too much like the Kennedys, and they weren't good for the country."

He pled, "Please don't hold that against me. All I ask is that you measure me against the other candidates. I'd do the same for you."

He took her hand, looked deep into her eyes. She softened. "Well, okay, I'm very broad-minded." He tried her cream cheese cookies. Shiver sighed, and as he moved on, she said, "I just might give him another look."

She represents Watson's most perplexing dilemma--the Carter factor--and how to play it in a state which takes pride in its ex-President for having been one, but would never cater to a Carter hard sell. Polls show that Washington triumphs won't play in Camilla. "We don't know exactly what the Carter connection means" to voters, press secretary Steve Johnson said.

And yet, Watson depends on the old peanut network. Handouts and free advice from former White House alumni like Hamilton Jordan help keep the campaign afloat. Ex-Carter staffers dash about his headquarters in downtown Atlanta. He used Carter pollster Patrick Caddell as his seer until his numbers failed to improve. He got a new pollster. His numbers shot up.

He's upbeat about his chances to pull out of what he believes is a virtual three-way tie for third place come primary day, Aug. 10, and nose into a runoff with Ginn, a popular five-term congressman. "I started off as a long shot," he says. "Then I became a dark horse. Now I'm a contender."

After all, Andrew Young, Carter's former U.N. ambassador, made it as mayor of Atlanta. Max Cleland, ex-boss of the Veterans Administration, is running for secretary of state. Bert Lance is said to be pondering a Senate bid. Why not Watson for governor?

A candidate who once flew high in Air Force One, he now flies in borrowed planes, bouncing low over pine forests and cow pastures. New polls show at least 70 percent of the voters know who he is. Hard support has gone from 4 to 10 percent, he said. He received a key endorsement from blacks in Savannah, and Watson's polls show the No. 2 man, Atlanta lawyer Norman Underwood, dropping like a rock, making the runoff a horse race for everyone except Ginn.

But it's a race of personalities, not issues. Everyone agrees that criminals should be locked up, taxes kept low, state money spent frugally and teachers given raises. Candidates like Mac McNease, the man with the electric chair, are given little chance in the race. And though Watson's polls show him in third place, other candidates' polls show him fourth, behind Populist public service commissioner Billy Lovett and state senator Joe Frank Harris--neck and neck for third place behind Underwood and Ginn. Ginn must get 51 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

"Jack does show some movement," said Ginn's press secretary Charlie Hayzlett, who "wouldn't bet a nickel on anyone for second place. The race is too unfocused" with less than a month to go. "But [Watson] is still a factor."

To stay alive, Watson is counting on Carter magic with blacks and the crucial suburban vote that dumped ex-Sen. Herman E. Talmadge. TV ads are targeted at 60 percent of the state's Democratic voters who live within Atlanta media range. And to combat Ginn's antidrug commercials, Watson is trying to toughen a nice guy image that belies his Marine commando training.

Some voters find it hard to believe that such an earnest young man could have been a wrestling champion and track star at Vanderbilt, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and voted the outstanding man in his class. He left the Marines in 1963 for Harvard Law School, just missing Vietnam. Watson met Carter after joining the old-line Atlanta law firm of Carter intimate Charles Kirbo, worked on Carter's second gubernatorial campaign and later helped reogranize state government.

Carter has promised to eat barbecue at a media picnic extravaganza scheduled for later this month. And Watson has solicited contributions from a list of notables that reads like a who's who from the Carter days: former secretary of state Cyrus R. Vance ($1,000) is one of six former Cabinet members; Washington heavyweights like Theodore Sorenson, Clark Clifford and Robert S. McNamara; ex-press secretary Jody Powell ($500); two ex-ambassadors and others.

But to make the runoff, he needs more than money from Carterites, whose donations account for $800,000 raised so far. Ginn's war chest tops $1 million. Advisers like Jordan, a visiting professor at Emory University in Atlanta, urge "Jack to try to relate better to the average Georgia voter."

Almost half of those quizzed in a January Caddell poll said Watson did a good job in Washington, but that he didn't understand the problems of Georgia citizens. He's managed to cut such doubters in half, but advisors worry about a Washington taint.

"Watson talks real good," agreed undecided voter Jimmy Carr, 34, a Farm Bureau agent who came to Camilla to size up the candidates. "But he comes across as a big city boy and that tends to turn people off. Someone who's been away in Washington just can't relate to our problems. They might have read it in a book, but they haven't lived it."

So Watson avoids pitching the Potomac. He relies instead on TV to push his create jobs, better education, get tough on crime platform that differs little from the others; on volunteers of peanut brigaders left over from the 1980 presidential campaign; and on a seductive charisma to win converts as the sex appeal candidate. There are plenty to convert.

He won over Lee Sam Houston, 43, a justice of the peace and ex-Navy diver. "When I heard he worked for Jimmy Carter, I didn't know about him," Houston said. "But he sounds like he's got his stuff in the right seabag."