As about 400 men swapped jokes over whiskey and beer at the stag catfish supper, a tall woman in a rainbow skirt wandered between pickup trucks parked by a lake, pumping callused hands as the sun set, dealing out political post cards and daring history and tradition once again.

Evelyn Gandy, front-runner in a field of five in the Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday, is back at age 62, running to become the first woman to be elected governor in the Deep South not preceded by her husband. She grabbed Foots Pearson's hand and shook it hard.

"Like she meant business," reflected Pearson, 66, a gray-haired service station owner and county Democratic committeeman who says he plans to vote for Gandy, the first time he has ever voted for a woman.

"That was the first thing I noticed," he said. "She had a grip like a man. It wasn't no dishrag. She seemed more sure of herself. She's tough. Up until now, I didn't think a woman was tough enough to put it over."

No woman has ever put it over in Mississippi, but now the South has a chance to bury its longstanding tradition of male dominance in the statehouse and elect women governors in here and in Kentucky, where Lt. Gov. Martha Layne Collins, a former Kentucky Derby beauty queen, won the Democratic nomination. She faces Jim Bunning, a former major league pitching star, in the general election.

Gandy, a former lieutenant governor, has never won a beauty contest. Nor has she ever married, living with her mother and sister in a small frame house in Jackson.

"Miss Evelyn," as she is fondly known by devotees who always deliver at least 200,000 votes in any statewide race she enters, could make history in Mississippi if the opinion polls are right about the primary and the runoff, which will be three weeks later if no one wins a majority.

Mississippi wasn't ready for a woman governor four years ago when Gov. William F. Winter beat Gandy badly in the runoff after she led in the primary.

His macho TV advertisements, engineered by Washington media consultant Bob Squier, featured Winter with state National Guard tanks in the background. Gandy's spots, written by her sister, put her in a field of daisies with children.

This year, political consultants from Washington, D.C., are running Gandy's first high-tech campaign. Raymond Strother, who also is working for Collins in Kentucky, tackles the gender issue with TV spots plugging her experience as a political pioneer during almost four decades in public life. Patrick Caddell is doing her polls.

The powerful state teachers' lobby has endorsed her. Two rival polls give Gandy 35 to 40 percent of the vote, at least 10 points ahead of her nearest rivals, Attorney General Bill Allain and wealthy Delta planter Mike Sturdivant, who has hired Squier. They are in a bitter fight for a runoff spot.

Allain just won $74 million in refund checks for consumers from a powerful utility company. But he was badly stung by Sturdivant ads harping on private legal fees he accepted for outside work while assistant attorney general.

But the polls still show Sturdivant trailing, despite a fat ad campaign funded by his $1.7 million annual income from farming, hotel ventures and oil and gas wells. TV spots pitch him as a savvy tycoon who can transform the poorest state in the nation into the promised land. Later polls indicated that Allain was keeping his lead over Sturdivant, however.

Whoever wins will face a powerful Republican challenge by Leon Bramlett, a businessman and former all-America football player at the U.S. Naval Academy. Bramlett is targeted for heavy support from the Republican National Committee.

Republican strategists relish the prospect of facing Miss Evelyn.

"We're covered up with people who won't vote for a woman," said Henry Weiss, a scrap metal dealer and Republican. "I just don't believe a woman can handle the job. We're so far behind in education and economic development and everything else, I just feel we like we need strong male leadership to pull us out."

On Wednesday, however, Gandy denounced a TV spot of a woman saying, "It would be fun to vote for a woman, but I'm voting for Sturdivant." Gandy said the commercial was "insulting to women and the voters of Mississippi." After protests by outraged women's groups, it was taken off the air.

Gandy was elected to the legislature while a young lawyer in 1947 after serving as an aide to late senator Theodore G. Bilbo, a symbol of segregation. It is an interlude her resume no longer mentions, overshadowed for many blacks by her achievement against great odds.

She became the first woman elected statewide to a number of constitutional offices: state treasurer, insurance commissioner, lieutenant governor. She served as welfare commissioner, building a base among the poor for constituent services.

As lieutenant governor she once fired a powerful state senator from a budget committee chairmanship after he refused to resign after a federal indictment for influence-peddling.

He was later convicted, served his time and showed up here the other night at the catfish supper, launching his own comeback as a candidate for Lowndes County chancery clerk. All eyes followed Gandy as she approached the man and, without hesitation, shook his hand hard and inquired about his wife.

"That took guts," marveled host Billy Jordan, 45, a criminal lawyer. "She did what she had to do."