JACKSON, MISS., AUG. 4 -- Crusading state Auditor Ray Mabus led Mississippi's crowded Democratic primary for governor tonight but fell short of a majority and appeared headed for a runoff with businessman Michael Sturdivant, who clung to the coveted No. 2 spot.

After a campaign that saw spending top $4 million, turnout was reported heavy despite rain throughout much of the day. About 850,000 of the state's 1.65 million voters had been expected to go to the polls.

With 48 percent of precincts reported, Mabus had 38 percent, Delta millionaire Sturdivant was second with 17 percent, former governor William Waller was third with 13 percent, and attorney Maurice Dantin was fourth with 11 percent.

If no candidate received a majority, an Aug. 25 runoff would be held between the top two finishers.

"Mississippi has come a long way. Mississippi is changing," Mabus told a cheering victory party. "We've got a long way to go, but doesn't it feel good right now? But our job isn't done. We can't rest in our fight against the old politics and the politicians of the past in Mississippi."

Sturdivant, predicting he would hold on to second place, told his supporters, "We always wondered if a businessman and a family man could win the governor's race, by golly, I think we're showing them he can."

David Evans, a political science professor at the Mississippi University for Women, characterized the campaign as mostly "lackluster," compared with the 1983 gubernatorial campaign when allegations of sexual philandering added a lurid element to the competition.

Recent statewide polls had given Mabus, a 38-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, a clear lead in the eight-candidate Democratic field. The polls said Sturdivant, who spent $1.3 million, including $1.2 million of his own money, and Waller were in a close battle for the No. 2 spot.

In the last five governor's races, the No. 2 finisher in the Democratic primary has gone on to win the general election. The most recent example was Gov. William A. Allain, the Democrat who won in 1983 but who declined to seek a second term this year.

"The conventional wisdom says if you lead the first primary, you don't win the election," Mabus said. "Well, to that conventional wisdom, I say, 'You just try and catch us.'"

In only the second Republican gubernatorial primary this century, businessman Jack Reed easily defeated financial consultant Doug Lemon. Reed had 78 percent of the vote to Lemon's 22 percent.

The state has not had a Republican governor since Yankee general Adelbert Ames served as the state's last Reconstruction leader, leaving office in 1876.

Farther back in the Democratic field, Attorney General Ed Pittman had 10 percent, attorney John Arthur Eaves had 9 percent and two political newcomers, Gilbert (Pete) Fountain and H.R. Toney each had 1 percent.

In addition to the governor's primaries, there were Democratic contests for five statewide offices including secretary of state. In that race Dick Molpus defeated two challengers, one of whom was Roy Jordan, a college student.