IN NORTH CAROLINA, the movement seems to be toward the past. The wildly expensive and vicious 1984 Senate race between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt featured candidates whose politics was thought to be the wave of the future. Sen. Helms with his aggressively right-wing approach to social and cultural issues and his do-or-die foreign policy approach has proved over the years that he can attract votes from rural traditional Democrats and newly registered evangelicals. Gov. Hunt, with his support of competency tests and advocacy of capital punishment, is the kind of stern-minded progressive Democrat who proved he can attract votes in North Carolina's fast growing urban areas, not quite enough in 1984 to beat Mr. Helms.

Yet, in this month's North Carolina primary for senator, neither party followed its 1984 model. Sen. John East, a Helms prote'ge', is retiring for health reasons; Mr. Hunt, after his bruising race in 1984, decided not to run. The Democrats nominated Terry Sanford, who was elected governor in 1960. The Republicans chose Rep. James Broyhill, who was first elected to the House in 1962. Mr. Sanford, the longtime president of Duke University, has been identified from the days when he vigorously supported John F. Kennedy with the liberal wing of his party -- though he was not by any current standards as liberal as his reputation suggested. Mr. Broyhill was opposed by Jesse Helms's Congressional Club (though the senator himself was careful to remain neutral) and still won by nearly 2-1. That represented a real setback for Helms-minded Republicans, who have been getting around 50 percent or more in Republican primaries since 1972.

So a state that in 1984 saw a Senate race between two men who seemed to represent their parties' future now has a Senate race between an Eisenhower Republican and a Kennedy Democrat. If it's a trend, it's an odd one.