Willa Cather was the soul of Nebraska.

In her haunting, elegant novels about turn-of-the-century life in this picturesque prairie village, Nebraska's most famous author memorialized forever the decency, dignity and determination of the hard-working pioneer settlers whose values still dominate the culture of the Cornhusker State.

As any Catherphile knows, the strongest and most respected people in her Nebraska were the women. That, too, may still be true today.

In Tuesday's primary election here, Nebraska seems likely to become the first state to put women at the top of the ticket of both major parties.

Female candidates seem to be leading crowded fields in both parties' primaries to seek the governor's seat being vacated by popular Democrat Bob Kerrey, who is leaving politics, at least temporarily.

On the Democratic side, Helen Boosalis, a former mayor of Lincoln and member of Kerrey's Cabinet, appears to be leading six other hopefuls.

Eight candidates are struggling for the Republican nomination for governor, one of Nebraska's least-desired positions until Kerrey decided not to seek reelection. Polls and politicians agree that the leaders of the pack are state Treasurer Kay Orr and Nancy Hoch, the GOP's candidate for U.S. Senate in 1984.

A statewide poll taken late last week for the Omaha World-Herald showed that 37 percent of Democrats surveyed favor Boosalis, who ranked about 20 percentage points ahead of her closest competitors, moderate lawyer Christopher Beutler and slightly more conservative lawyer David Domina.

The poll showed Orr leading Republicans with 29 percent, Hoch with 19 percent and former state GOP chairman Kermit Brashear with 16 percent.

Polls in both parties showed that a high portion of voters is undecided, suggesting that the survey may be an unreliable predictor of the vote.

But political professionals here seem to agree that Boosalis, Orr and Hoch have made the strongest impression in a primary election with few issues separating candidates within each party.

Despite some misgivings, there seems no doubt that Nebraska is ready to send a woman to the governor's office.

"There are probably some cowboy types out here in western Nebraska who still won't vote for a woman," said John Hanson, Democratic chairman in Madison County. "But the fact that you've got so many women in the race probably offsets that, and anyway, none of these candidates comes across as a Geraldine Ferraro-type -- you know, the so-called 'uppity female,' " he said, making fun of those who seemed to resent Ferraro's direct manner during the last presidential campaign.

On the other hand, there are voters like Bob Hoffman, a Lincoln barber, who said last week, "I won't vote for any woman for governor, and you know why? Because I'm prejudiced, I guess."

For the most part, however, primary balloting is likely to turn less on questions of gender than on each candidate's ability to identify supporters and get them to the polls.

The big field of candidates has spawned a potpourri of policy ideas.

The Rev. Everett Sileven, a western plains fundamentalist who had a long legal battle over his refusal to hire state-certified teachers for his parochial school, is running as a Republican. But his ideas reach back to Nebraska's great populist Democrat, William Jennings Bryan. If he wins, Sileven said, the state will issue its own currency to aid struggling farmers.

Boosalis, meanwhile, says she will push a "working visitors" program in which tourists will be encouraged to pay for the right to do farm work here. "Our farmers would gain labor and cash, while the visitors would experience the good life of rural Nebraska," she said.

Willa Cather, of course, knew all about that "good life." As one of her strong female characters in the novel "My Antonia" observed, to farm the endless prairie of Nebraska is "to be dissolved into something complete and great."