John Traeger may go into the history books as the man who saved the South for the Democratic Party or as the inventor of a political Rube Goldberg device that exploded in his face. Neither he nor anyone else is sure which it will be -- but a whole lot rides on the answer.

Traeger is the Texas state senator who has spearheaded the successful drive for a southern-dominated "super-primary" in March of 1988 -- a 12-to-15-state extravaganza that may wrap up the presidential nominations for both parties in a way that delights Dixie voters or frustrates their hopes.

Conversations during last week's Southern Legislative Conference here about this radical redesign of the nominating system make one thing obvious: The designers have no more idea about the consequences of their invention than anyone else.

They acted, Traeger said, because "everyone in the South was so chagrined and disgusted with the way the election process worked last time." Said Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy, his key ally in the drive to get all the southern and border states to pick convention delegates between March 8 and 12, 1988: "The purpose is to bring the Democratic Party back to the mainstream of southern thinking."

Traeger and Murphy are hard-edged legislative veterans, not theorists of the nominating process. All they know is that in 1984 their Democratic Party nominated a ticket with a Minnesota liberal and a New York liberal, and made it easy for Ronald Reagan to sweep the South and damned tough for even conservative Democrats to hold on to their legislative and courthouse jobs.

Their frustration was so widely shared among southern and border state Democratic politicians that 12 states from Missouri to Maryland and southward have signed on for the "super-primary," and more may yet join. "Hell," said Traeger, "you wave a Confederate flag and play Dixie and they'll vote for anything. . . . No one really knows what will happen, but it can't get worse and it might get better." Perhaps.

To a man, the Democratic legislators who had a hand in this invention reject Jesse Jackson's expressed view that he will benefit from being able to run against a large field of white contenders in a set of states with large black populations. Their confidence may or may not be misplaced. Jackson demonstrated in 1984 he can turn out his vote through informal, church-based networks, without much money. It remains to be seen whether the white contenders can mobilize their voters without massive funds and organizations, which are difficult to assemble in the early weeks of a nomination campaign.

Even among the advocates, there is fundamental disagreement about the character of the primary they have created. Speaker-elect Jon Mills of Florida said it should be called the Sunbelt primary, not the southern primary, or maybe, better yet, the "mega-state" primary, since in his view Florida and Texas will dominate the media coverage and delegate numbers. Mills's theory is that it will produce not a more conservative candidate, as Traeger and Murphy hope, but a more cosmopolitan, sophisticated, future-oriented nominee than one likely to be favored by small-town and rural voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

That's an interesting theory, but so far Texas hasn't approved the March 8 date, and some Democrats think the super-primary bill faces a veto if Republican Bill Clements wins the governorship in November. As for reducing the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, Mills (unlike others) is realistic enough to acknowledge that the winners of those two states will carry a "halo effect" into the southern super-primary that challengers will find hard to displace.

So what will the super-primary do? It will force -- in fact, is already forcing -- would-be contenders to spend more time in the South and pay greater heed to its concerns with agriculture, energy and trade issues. The difficulty is that the South is anything but unified on those issues. Low energy prices are a crisis to Texas and Oklahoma, but a boon to Florida. New Orleans has one view on trade restrictions, textile cities such as Greenville-Spartanburg an opposite view.

Having listened to all the theories, my own view is that the southern super-primary is less likely to change the nominee or the platform of the Democratic Party than is the power balance between the parties in the South. Eight of the southern states have no party registration, so if conservative Democrats don't like the choices in their party, they can vote in the Republican primary the same day. Traeger and others argue that the uniqueness of the super-primary experiment will keep those wavering Democrats from bolting. The sponsors have to hope that proves true, because if conservative Democrats shift in large numbers on primary day, they're not likely to come back on Election Day.

Tom Murphy put the bottom-line proposition about as bluntly as possible: "We in the South are going to be recognized by the Democrats this time -- or we're going to have another Republican president." One way or another, he'll probably be right.