Southern voters believe that U.S. foreign policy has gone astray, that traditional social values are under siege and that their political leaders deserve cynicism. But they're not necessarily ready to toss the ins out.

That is the gist of a report on the mood of the southern electorate released yesterday by the Roosevelt Center for American Studies, a nonpartisan think tank. The report was based on interviews last month with focus groups of 77 voters in Atlanta, Houston, Greensboro, N.C., and Birmingham. The focus groups are not scientific samples; they are designed rather to probe for the depth and intensity of voters' attitudes.

The report contains bittersweet findings for the Democratic Party, which virtually has been shut out of the last two presidential elections in a region it once called the "Solid South."

While southerners of both parties expressed broad disillusionment on a variety of noneconomic fronts, they do not seem inclined to take out their frustrations on Republicans.

Of the Iran-contra affair, for example, the report noted, "Unlike Watergate in 1976, the reaction to the Iran-contra affair has not taken a generalized revulsion against the Republican Party, and the mantle of trustworthiness is available for capture by candidates of both parties."

The report found that self-identified Democrats who voted for President Reagan in 1984 -- about a third of all Southern Democrats -- seem disposed toward the Republican Party as they look to the 1988 presidential campaign. "Swing Democrats {are} strongly -- though not irreversibly -- inclined to back the Republican nominee," wrote report co-authors Mark J. Rovner and William A. Galston.

Another Democratic pollster familiar with the region agreed with the findings. "There's no question that there's been a big upswing in cynicism. It's like someone punched a hole in the dam that was holding it back," said William Hamilton. "Part of it is disappointment with Reagan over Iran-contra, and part of it is {convicted Wall Street stock manipulator} Ivan Boesky and {ousted television evangelists} Jim and Tammy Bakker. So far, the Democrats haven't done a very good job of taking advantage, but in the long run, you figure it's got to hurt the Republicans."

The report found a general satisfaction with economic conditions in the South among all but the most loyal Democrats, though the authors said that by drawing focus groups from urban areas only, they had a skewed sample. The rural areas of the South are more economically hard-pressed than the cities.

On foreign policy, the authors found a frustration that the nation is no longer "standing tall overseas," and a desire to teach terrorists a lesson, but to do so without risking involvement in any protracted conflicts.

On social issues, the report said voters believe "the family is under severe stress, discipline in the schools is eroding, the work ethic is at best selectively honored, and respect for authority is alarmingly low." Swing Democrats feel most strongly about these issues, Galston said, and they like a president who stands up for "traditional values."

When the interviewers sought reactions to 1988 presidential candidates, none of the Democrats except Jesse L. Jackson attracted much comment. As for Jackson, "The intensity of the reaction to him blew us away," Galston said, noting that voters viewed him as a "rabble-rouser" who stirred up trouble but did not see issues to their conclusion.

Swing Democrats had a negative view of Vice President Bush: they used the words "vacillator" and "yes-man" to describe him. Television evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson also drew criticism, but the harshest words were for former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. "I have never seen such unrelievedly negative comments about any politician," Galston said. Haig was faulted as being power hungry.

The South will host 14 of the 20 contests to be held March 8 on Super Tuesday, when about one-third of the delegates to both parties' national conventions will be chosen. The authors speculated that unless a moderate-to-conservative Democrat emerges as a candidate, many swing Democrats may choose to vote in the Republican primaries, though it's not clear for whom.