Even Jesse Helms got to go home for Christmas. Hours after his fortnight battle against the gasoline tax increase was over and lost, he was bone-tired and bleary-eyed as he drove down Interstate 95, and a few times during the five-hour trip his car lurched precariously toward the shoulder of the highway. Finally, when he reached the exit for South Hill, Va., he decided to pull over and make a pit stop at Hardee's.

No sooner had the senior senator from North Carolina approached the counter of the fast-food establishment than a truck driver recognized his unforgettable mug. "Hey, there's Jesse Helms," said the trucker. Heads turned, mutters of awareness filled the room, and suddenly, spontaneously, some 15 or 20 fellow travelers were on their feet applauding.

"That," Helms would say later, "was the first time I ever got a standing ovation at Hardee's." In fact, it was one of the few times he had received a warm reception anywhere during December.

He had left Washington with a few more nicknames attached to him by his enemies, and even some friends, who had been frustrated by his long, and in the end unsuccessful, attempt to talk the gasoline tax increase to death. "Scrooge," they had called him, and the "Grinch Who Almost Stole Christmas." Although Helms was proud of the stand he had taken, he was troubled by the viciousness of the attacks, and eager to retreat to the friendlier confines of his home state.

In this case friendlier was a relative term, for although he was cheered at Hardee's and hugged and kissed during a Christmas Eve shopping tour of Raleigh, North Carolina was not exactly a haven for Jesse Helms.

If it had seemed during the lame-duck session of Congress that almost everyone in the nation's capital had turned against him, Helms' holiday journey south revealed that his stature in North Carolina was unchanged--which is to say that the home folks are sharply, bitterly, intensely divided. The next election for the old warrior of the New Right is nearly two years off, but even now the campaign flames are burning bright, as Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. prepares to challenge him in a race that has been called "a struggle for the soul of the South," one that has attracted considerable national attention and even more national money.

"This is not the state of North Carolina, it is the state of obsession," said a Democratic Party worker in Raleigh. "Everybody seems to be going nuts over Helms and Hunt, even during Christmas." Added Robert Caudle, Helms' chief field worker: "It is a fact that people either love Sen. Helms or hate him. And those who don't like him are absolutely obsessed with the idea of getting him out of the U.S. Senate. It is their No. 1 driving force."

Upon his arrival in Raleigh, Helms was greeted by a full-page newspaper advertisement, sponsored by a Democratic political action group intent on defeating him in 1984, that shouted: "North Carolina Deserves Better!" The editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, Claude Sitton, wrote a column headlined, "Senators No and No-No Draw Nation's Jeers," the double negative referring to the state's other Republican senator, John P. East. Sitton called the Helms-East filibuster "an encore for Dixie demagoguery."

Helms' political action committee (PAC), the National Congressional Club, swiftly responded to what it called "Mr. Claude Sitton, liberal editor" with an advertisement featuring quotes of praise for Helms from President Reagan and Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.). The Durham Morning Herald then editorialized that Helms deserved "not condemnation but our thanks," and took on all of his recent critics, including conservative columnist George Will, whose attack on Helms the newspaper deemed "remarkable for its childishness."

All week long a local radio station held instant polls on various Helms questions. Was his popularity holding? Should filibusters be allowed in the Senate? If the 1984 Senate election were held today, would you vote for Sen. Helms or Gov. Hunt? The findings of these unscientific telephone call-in polls favored Helms, but what was most noteworthy about them was the number of people who bothered to respond to such political issues during the holiday season. Every time the station posed a question, there were 100 calls within a minute or two.

One of the few Carolinians to remain politically silent last week was Hunt, who retreated to his farm in Rock Ridge after holding a year-end news conference at which he refused to say anything critical of Helms or even to take a position on the gasoline tax-highways bill that had engendered such a firestorm up in Washington. Hunt, an exceptionally popular second-term governor, has been called a mixture of former governor Terry Sanford and the late Chicago mayor Richard Daley, effectively merging the New South progressivism that Sanford symbolized with the machine politics of a big-city pol.

He is leading Helms by between 8 and 16 percentage points in the early polls, a lead that has convinced him and his aides to keep the low profile of a statesman as Helms fumes and filibusters. Reasoned his press secretary, Gary Pearce, a few months ago: "If we don't win, it'll be because we were stupid."

While Hunt was idling, the machinery of his nascent campaign against Helms churned away. A mid-December fund-raiser sponsored by the North Carolina Campaign Fund, the state Democratic Party's answer to Helms' fund-raising apparatus, drew 1,500 people and hauled in an estimated $250,000, making it the largest event of its kind in North Carolina history. And last Wednesday Wayne McDevitt, the director of the fund, sat in his Raleigh office counting up the checks that were flowing in from all over the country in response to the first national direct-mail effort of the group.

"We got several thousand dollars just today, and several of the checks included notes saying they were prompted by the Helms filibuster," said McDevitt. "I don't have any empirical evidence on how much his latest moves up in Washington will hurt him, but the feeling we're getting down here is that a lot of people think Jesse Helms last week rendered himself ineffective in the United States Senate."

The fund-raising letter was signed by William D. Cox, mayor of the small town of Hertford, N.C., and devised by the fund and Patricia Keefer of the Washington-based consulting firm of Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co., who explained the success of the operation with the words: "You have to have a devil. You have to have someone for people to respond to. That's how you raise money."

Helms, who previously had been called "The Prince of Darkness" by Democratic National Committee chairman Charles T. Manatt and "Public Enemy No. 1" by the National Organization for Women, was referred to in the letter as a "right-wing demagogue" whose machine "feeds on divisive emotional issues such as abortion and civil rights."

In an interview at his downtown Raleigh office, Helms said he had grown accustomed to the liberal counterattacks and was not troubled by them. The reception he got at the Hardee's in South Hill, Va., he said, "reaffirmed my belief that the only people I've got on my side are the people." But the criticism he got from his Senate colleagues last month, and the threats that they would be hostile to the tobacco and peanut interests of North Carolina in retribution for his filibuster, did bother him.

"Anyone who tells you they wouldn't like to be popular with their peers wouldn't be honest," he said. "I had a number of my closest friends in the Senate come up to me saying, 'Please, please, let the fellas go home. They're tired.' But the Senate passed that bill without one senator except me actually having the printed bill in front of him. They had no idea what was in it. I was aghast at the hostility, but it will pass.

"A few years ago there was a great senator from Alabama named Jim Allen. And he used to do what I did last week and they'd really rake him over the coals and the press would say he'd never recover from it, that he'd ruin himself with his colleagues. Well, Jim died of a heart attack and three-fourths of the Senate went down to mourn his loss. Now I'm not Jim Allen and I don't want to prove that point just yet by dropping dead, but . . . . "

Thomas (Beaver) Ellis, the Raleigh lawyer who heads the conservative fund-raising empire and serves as the senator's chief home-state adviser, said Helms took the Senate attacks hard. "If there's one bottom line to Jesse Helms insofar as what he wants in life, it would be to have the respect of the members of the Senate," said Ellis, an oversized portrait of Robert E. Lee looming over his office desk. "His total commitment is trying to be an effective senator."

In terms of Helms' effectiveness in North Carolina, what appears to have hurt him most was not his New Right charges against abortion and for school prayer, nor even his opposition to the gasoline tax, but rather the decisive votes he and East cast last July that allowed for passage of the tax increase pushed by the Reagan administration.

One feature of that tax bill took effect yesterday--a doubling of the excise tax on cigarettes from 8 to 16 cents.

How could the senators from the No. 1 tobacco-growing state in the nation, a state where the livelihoods of 300,000 residents depend on tobacco, have done such a thing? Helms explained his vote by arguing that he tried and failed to get the cigarette tax hike killed, and was left with a choice of accepting the bill as it was or letting it get redrafted in a fashion that would have been more harmful to conservative interests. Said Helms: "If it failed, Dole Senate Finance Committee Chairman Robert J. Dole of Kansas would have had to work out a compromise with all the liberal Democrats, and that would have cost us millions of dollars."

"I was forced to walk the plank that July morning at 5 a.m. when John and I changed our votes," he added. "I knew it would be politically disadvantageous to me."

And so it was. The Democrats immediately placed advertisements in papers throughout the state labeling Helms and East "The Tobacco Tax Twins." Helms' Raleigh office was flooded with telephone calls, telegrams and letters protesting his vote.

"That was the biggest shock we've ever had, and I don't say that from a partisan point of view," said Reggie Lester, director of the Tobacco Growers Information Committee. "The fact that they voted for the measure was astounding to all of us. You might say the tobacco industry was disappointed and surprised."

The impact was immediate. The Monday after the vote, tobacco markets in what is known as the Eastern Belt of the state opened, and prices and total sales were down precipitously from the year before. The initial drop was attributed in large part to the belief by major cigarette companies that consumption would decrease by at least 4 percent as a result of the tax increase.

Helms tried to soften the blow by appearing at a tobacco warehouse that day to explain his vote. "There's no room for partisan politics where the tobacco tax is concerned," he said. But at the Riverside Planters Warehouse along Route 301 in Smithfield, the anti-Helms feelings were intense. "If Jesse Helms had shown himself in Smithfield today," said a booking agent there, "he'd have been killed."

The home-state reaction to the tobacco tax vote did nothing to slow down the national waterfall of money flowing into the Raleigh-based National Congressional Club from conservative donors who looked upon Helms and his organization as the spiritual center of the New Right movement. As the congressional elections approached last November, the NCC had $7 million in its coffers, some of which it distributed to a group of club-backed Republican candidates in the state.

The congressional campaigns became the first skirmishes in the looming Helms-Hunt war, and the Democrats won them decisively. Every candidate supported by Helms and the club lost, including two incumbents. The Democrats learned from that race that they could fight fire with fire, as they attracted an unexpected number of volunteers from other states to take on the Helms camp, and their own PAC brought in money from elsewhere as well.

"I personally am opposed to PACs and what they stand for," said McDevitt, who ran the Democratic congressional campaigns. "But it's like the 3-point-shot in the ACC Atlantic Coast Conference . I don't like that either. But if I were a coach in that conference I'd sure as hell go out and recruit some shooters. As long as the rules are this way, we're going to use them."

The races also left some North Carolina Republicans less than enthralled with Helms and Ellis and their club, which they felt had usurped the powers of the state party. One moderate Republican state senator, William W. Redman Jr. of Statesville, even broached the idea of challenging Helms in the GOP primary in 1984.

"There is a growing feeling that the party has to take hold of its own destiny," said former Republican governor James Holshouser of Southern Pines. "It has to be its own master again."

Still, there is a sense in North Carolina these days that not even Helms and Hunt are their own masters, that it is almost a matter of fate that their forces will meet two years hence in a titanic race that will once again define where the South is and where it is going.

Wrote political columnist Ferrell Guillory in the Raleigh News and Observer:

"Both appeal to many of the same North Carolinians. The two political currents they represent have persisted because the public swings between hope and fear, between worrying about change and wanting to change, between distrusting government and calling upon government to meet their needs . . . . It is not too much to say that these forces have frequently vied for the soul of the South."