The retirement later this year of Gov. George C. Wallace, who has dominated Alabama's politics for a quarter century, was widely viewed as an opportunity to debate the state's future and break with the Gothic politics of the Old South.

Instead, the campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to succeed Wallace has swept Alabama back into its past. It has become a carnival of name-calling, racial polarization, sexual innuendo and venomous personal attacks.

If the candidates are to be believed, the winner of Tuesday's runoff primary will be either a "liar" or "a coward," a "puppet" of "the special interest big bosses in Montgomery" or a lackey of "the big boys" of industry in Birmingham and "the fat cat Republicans."

The level of debate has sunk so low that Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley, the first-place finisher in the June 3 primary with 44 percent of the vote, recently challenged state Attorney General Charlie Graddick, the second-place finisher with 30 percent, to a lie detector test. Graddick, in turn, challenged Baxley to a fist fight.

"I wouldn't mind going right out here by the swimming pool in the grass and getting it on with him. Whatever he wanted to do," Graddick said at a news conference at a motel in Baxley's hometown of Dothan. His aides quickly issued a disclaimer, saying Graddick "isn't a violent man."

The campaign has also seen a resurgence of racial politics, which are more subtle than the racist appeals once used by Wallace. But the result -- an electorate sharply divided along racial lines -- is similar. Some observers estimate that Baxley, a liberal, will get 90 percent or more of the black vote, but have trouble picking up enough white votes to win the nomination.

Baxley charges Graddick with using "racial code words" to polarize voters. He notes that his opponent was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Graddick, nicknamed "Electric Chair Charlie" for the issue he used to win his present office, disavows the KKK endorsement and says "we have never brought up race."

But he was the only candidate in the primary not to seek black support. Graddick, a former Republican, has based his runoff campaign on attacks on Baxley's "liberalism" and his ties to "black political leaders" and "special interest bosses," a reference to endorsements Baxley received from the Alabama Education Association, the state AFL-CIO, trial lawyers and the state's two premier black political groups, the New South Coalition and the Alabama Democratic Coalition.

Ironically, Graddick has emerged as the candidate of change in the race. He has run as "a fresh face," who wants to "make Alabama the comeback state."

Baxley was regarded as a progressive New South political figure during the 1970s when as state attorney general he took on corrupt politicians, industrial polluters and prosecuted a klansman for a 1963 Birmingham church bombing in which four black girls died.

But this year Baxley is seen as the candidate of continuity, a fiery populist in the Wallace tradition. He has inherited much of Wallace's political coalition, which in recent years has included the very same blacks Wallace once campaigned against.

When Baxley and country music star Hank Williams Jr. came to Decatur for a rally earlier this week, for example, the old Wallace crowd was out in force, spread out 5,000 strong under the fading sun. Baxley, borrowing some of Wallace's old phrases, lambasted his opponent for "attackin,' cussin,' fussin' and pussyfootin' around."

"We've got more right in Alabama than we've got wrong," he declared. "The only thing wrong with Alabama's image is that people like my opponent are always tryin' to tear it down."

The Democratic runoff traditionally has been tantamount to election as governor in Alabama. The winner will face Republican nominee Guy Hunt, who is expected to provide token competition next fall.

Tuesday's election may turn less on Alabama's image or future than on the human frailities of Baxley, whose gambling, drinking, financial dealings and alleged womanizing have been the subject of embarrassing news reports over the years.

Trailing narrowly in the polls, Graddick tried this week to make the election a referendum on Baxley's "moral character." He was given a big assist by the Birmingham News, which endorsed Graddick last Sunday.

During a statewide television debate that night, a reporter for the newspaper questioned Baxley about a March 30 Birmingham News story alleging that a woman had been transported to and from Baxley's Montgomery apartment on a number of occasions in a state car. Baxley denied any impropriety.

The next day Graddick claimed Baxley had "looked into the camera and told the people of Alabama a flat lie" in his answer. Graddick challenged the Birmingham News to publish any photographs it had taken to substantiate the story. The paper then printed photos showing a young woman accompanied by Baxley's state trooper bodyguard leaving an apartment building and walking to a Baxley campaign car.

Baxley's wife, Lucy, held a series of news conferences to defend her husband. "The photographs were apparently taken after months of hiding in the bushes and spying on someone's home -- something I didn't know existed in America, much less in the state of Alabama -- and then as a result of all that, they publish photographs that neither show Bill nor the state car," she said.

The gutter-level dialogue distresses people like University of Alabama historian William Barnard. "Many of us hoped Alabama could finally get beyond the personality of George Wallace and look at the future," he said in an interview. "There was an impetus to get beyond the memories of the recent past, the turmoil of the 1960s with the pictures of Birmingham police chief Bull Connor and firehoses and George Wallace standing at the schoolhouse door. People hoped this election would improve the state's image. That hasn't happened."