Democrats who won Senate seats in the South in 1986 think their party will have a tough time duplicating the victory in the 1988 presidential race.

Republicans who captured southern governorships in the same election are confident that either Vice President Bush or Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) can keep the region in the GOP column next year.

Those conclusions emerged from a roundtable discussion with five freshman Democratic senators in Washington and interviews with three of the freshman Republican governors who attended a national GOP governors conference in Santa Fe, N.M.

The Democrats attributed their less than cheerful outlook to a "stature advantage" for the Republican contenders and the continuing leftward tilt the Iowa caucuses give to the Democratic candidates' rhetoric.

The Republicans said they can see no one coming out of the Democratic pack with the right arguments to win the South in November. They marvel that the Demcrats have not exploited the opening the Reagan administration has left them on the energy issue important to several southern states.

The participants in the Washington Democratic roundtable were Sens. John B. Breaux (La.), Wyche Fowler Jr. (Ga.), Bob Graham (Fla.), Terry Sanford (N.C.) and Richard C. Shelby (Ala.). The Republican governors interviewed in Santa Fe were Henry L. Bellmon of Oklahoma, William P. Clements Jr. of Texas and Guy Hunt of Alabama.

While uncommitted at this point, several of the freshman Democrats see Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) as the candidate who is tuning his message most clearly to southern sensibilities. But they worry whether anyone other than Jesse L. Jackson can win convincingly with the low voter turnout they expect in the southern "super primary" March 8.

The Republicans say Gore so far has failed to sell himself as a real southerner. "If it had been a Nunn or a Robb," said Hunt, referring to Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb (D), "that would appeal to the people of Alabama. But Sen. Gore doesn't have a lot of the South about him. He's really a liberal."

Hunt said "the chance that any of these Democrats would beat a Republican in Alabama is about one in 10, maybe less." And the Democratic gathering was not overflowing with optimism.

"You would think that with all the problems and all the mistakes and all the indictments in this administration, we would go in looking like a cinch," Breaux said, "but it's an uphill battle."

Reflecting a general lack of enchantment with the current field of candidates, Shelby said that "unless somebody out there catches on real strongly, our best chance -- and it's very remote -- would be to start over at the convention" by drafting someone such as Nunn.

Sanford cautioned several times that it is too early to write anyone off. "Every single candidate is trying to figure out how to win in the South," he said, "They know you can't win {the election} without the South."

Breaux said "the maturity aspect . . . is going to be a major factor in the race," making Bush or Dole "very difficult to beat" in November. They "have a tremendous amount of political experience in every area of government," he said.

The Republicans in Santa Fe agreed that Bush is ahead in the South but disagreed over whether Dole has a realistic chance to beat him.

The Democrats' respect for the Republican front-runners alternated with repeated expressions of frustration about the impact of the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses on the Democratic race.

"If the candidates tailor their message -- which they're doing -- for Iowa and the liberal activists there," Breaux warned, "sooner or later that is going to play against them in the South." He said Gore, the only one of the six Democratic presidential contenders to denounce the Iowa process and in effect forfeit that contest, has the "message that plays in my area better than the other messages."

Sanford, who repeatedly cautioned his colleagues not to be too critical of the candidates, said he hopes that the campaigning for the "Super Tuesday" primaries will be "a redeeming process" for the hopefuls. Fowler agreed, saying that he thinks "the national press has already discounted" the impact of Iowa and New Hampshire because of the southern primaries.

But Fowler said "there is one downside" to the southern primaries: After March 8, the South will have no further influence on the Democratic race. The remaining contests will be fought largely in the industrial North and the West.

Fowler also noted that Super Tuesday probably will yield "mixed results," with each of the contending candidates likely to "zero in on a couple states to show . . . southern acceptance." He also forecasts "very low turnouts . . . 20 percent at best, and it could be 10 or 12 percent."

"If you keep that low turnout," Breaux immediately observed, "Jesse {Jackson} wins."

With a minor dissent from Fowler, who said the geographical concentration of Jackson's vote once again may win him a smaller share of delegates than his popular vote percentage, the others agreed that the southern primaries may benefit Jackson more than anyone else. With the Republican governors, they expressed doubt that Jackson will be able to expand his vote base significantly outside the black community but said black turnout may be heavier than white turnout, as was the case in several states in 1984.

The disparity could grow, Shelby said, if "a lot of the independent vote, the white Democrats, vote in the Republican primaries" being held the same day, as is permitted in eight southern states.

In the interviews, conducted before New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's latest denials of candidacy, Cuomo's name came up several times as a late entry in the Democratic race. Fowler, in particular, said it was "obvious" that Cuomo "has a strategy" of entering the race after the South has had its primaries and establishing his vote-getting credentials in a couple of late primaries.

Republican governors were inclined to dismiss Cuomo's potential in their region, but Sanford said Cuomo "has very great appeal . . . all over the country."

Two of the Republican governors identified the energy issue as a possible problem for their party. Clements said, "The Democrats, if they're smart, are going to make energy a major issue in the campaign."

Bellmon observed that "rightly or wrongly, Reagan's going to be blamed for the pain in the oil patch. The administration policy opposing import fees and using our military resources to help the Middle East oil producers in the Gulf -- those things don't make sense to our oil industry. That's an opening for the Democrats."

Staff writer Paul Taylor and researcher Colette T. Rhoney contributed to this report.