Oh, how sweet was victory for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Oh, how he wanted the liberals to eat crow.

Surrounded in a steamy hotel ballroom Tuesday night by hundreds of supporters chanting "Jesse, Jesse" Helms savored his defeat of Gov. James B. Hunt in one of the meanest, most expensive Senate races in history.

He spoke like a man vindicated.

He pulled a faded news clipping from his vest pocket and held it aloft in his right hand. Dated Oct. 23, 1983, it was from the Outlook section of The Washington Post, and its headline said: "Jesse Helms has a Problem; He is Destined to Lose in '84."

"I don't believe The Washington Post, and I don't believe the Raleigh News & Observer," he declared.

"Give 'em hell, Jesse," someone shouted.

Helms, 63, proclaimed triumph not for himself but for the New Right causes he has championed in the Senate. Hunt had framed the election as a referendum on "right-wing extremism" and the kind of state North Carolinians wanted.

Voters decided that point, Helms said, noting, "We have sent a signal throughout the world that North Carolina is a conservative, God-fearing state."

"The cruel hoax of liberal politicians has run its course for the last time," he added.

The election changed the state's political landscape overnight and left Helms the unchallenged kingpin of state politics.

Rep. James G. Martin (R-N.C.) was elected the state's second Republican governor in this century. President Reagan's tidal wave swept Republicans to victory in four tight House races, and the GOP doubled its representation in the state legislature.

Incumbent Democratic Reps. Ike Andrews, James McC. Clarke and Robin Britt were defeated, and D.G. Martin, a promising new Democratic face, lost a cliffhanger to Republican J. Alex McMillan in the only open seat contested.

No other state saw such widespread Republican gains.

"I think there's a realignment going on down here," state GOP Chairman David Flaherty said. "The people of this state are conservative. They put a high value on traditional family values and less government. The Democratic Party has left them and gotten in bed with the special interests."

But Helms' eyes Tuesday night were not on party politics. They were on the New Right because the election also reaffirmed his standing as this conservative movement's foremost spokesman, a power to be reckoned with in the Senate and throughout the nation.

"It's a tremendous victory for conservatives," Helms' stratregist Charles Black said. "It enhances his clout and influence in the Senate in the eyes of the press and his colleagues. He'll be even more effective than he has been."

Helms Tuesday night paid special tribute to fundamentalist Christians and the thousands of persons who have fueled the movement with small donations raised through a sophisticated direct-mail system that Helms helped to pioneer.

Helms pledged to continue championing efforts to ban legalized abortion and restore prayer in public schools.

The election demonstrated the clout of the National Congressional Club, a political action committee run by Helms allies, said Merle Black, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina.

"It will be the basis for other senators to pay attention to Helms, not to tangle with him," Merle Black said.

Helms faces a decision because, with the defeat of Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.), he becomes ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is eligible to replace Percy as chairman.

To do that, however, he would have to relinquish chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, which he pledged repeatedly during the campaign that he would not do.

Hunt, 47, had portrayed the election as a choice between the progressive New South and racist Old South. He had lambasted Helms for ties to the Rev. Jerry L. Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.

Hunt and Helms battled toe-to-toe for two years, spending more than $21 million, a record. Final vote tallies showed Helms winning 52 percent of the vote, and Hunt forces blamed the defeat on the nationwide Reagan landslide and their inability to separate themselves from the tax-increase plan offered by Walter F. Mondale.

Tears flowed freely as Hunt conceded defeat in early morning.

"Yes, we have suffered disappointment, but we are not beaten in spirit," said Hunt, a two-term governor considered a rising star in national political circles. "We have fought for what we believe. We have given our all. We have carried the torch forward, and that flame will never, never die."

Hinting that voters should expect to hear more from him, Hunt said, " . . . I may be beaten, but I'm unbowed. I may be disappointed, but I will not be bitter. And, when it comes to making this state and this nation all it can be, I'm not finished."

The election-night crowd at Helms headquarters was well-dressed, almost all white and middle class. It included many of the same kind of status-conscious young professionals and college students who flocked to Reagan's campaign this fall.

At one point, three young men in the hotel bar slapped "high-fives." "If we're wearing Rolex watches at 18, think what we'll be wearing at 30," one said.

Rich Boggs, a landscape architect and lifelong Democrat, said he had worked dozens of hours for Helms and the GOP ticket.

"The platform of the Democratic Party seemed to oppose all the values that made this country great," he said. "It tied itself to all the dissident, splinter groups. I felt left out."

Boggs said he shares Helms' views on abortion and school prayer, but others said they did not. "There are a lot of us who support Jesse's foreign policy and economic views but aren't crazy about the Moral Majority," said Robert Hawison Jr., a longtime Helms friend and poker partner.