COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In this key southern state, racial conflicts rooted in the generation-old civil rights struggle continue to slice like a rusty knife through the Democratic Party coalition.

In contrast, a parallel Republican conflict between a rising army of charismatic, evangelical Christians and a dominant country club establishment -- a conflict with the potential to strangle an ascendant GOP -- has subsided.

Partly as a result, South Carolina's Republican Party has been marching to victory in a series of special legislative elections in once-Democratic districts, sending what may prove to be a prophetic message about the long-range consequences of the southern political experiment next year known as "Super Tuesday."

On March 8, southern states will go en masse to the polls in the largest collective primary in the nation's history to choose Republican and Democratic national convention delegates. The results in South Carolina will be especially revealing.

The state's Republican Party will hold its primary three days ahead of the rest of the South on March 5. That decision ensures not only that the GOP contest will get intense national attention as "the Iowa of the South," but also probably guarantees that turnout will reach or exceed 200,000, setting a new record for a GOP primary.

Republican presidential candidates -- particularly Pat Robertson and Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who appear to be the main challengers to Vice President Bush, the favorite of the GOP establishment -- have a strong incentive to reach out for support from independents and Democrats, who are free to vote in the GOP contest.

Democrats, on the other hand, have minimized the impact of their presidential contest by scheduling it for March 12, four days after Super Tuesday. In 1984, many white Democratic leaders were dismayed when Jackson led the field in the South Carolina caucuses.

In 1988 the Democrats will again select delegates by caucus instead of primary, with the result that roughly 20,000 party activists will participate -- a tenth of the expected GOP turnout.

Race is an important factor in these conflicting strategies. The GOP here is now the favorite of white voters in competitive statewide elections -- a Republican won the governorship last year. In the growing urban and suburban centers of the state, the white Democratic voter is a vanishing breed, so white Democratic officeholders depend on increasingly restive blacks for survival.

"In 1970, there were 15 members of the Richland County delegation {to the state legislature}," said John Courson, Republican state senator and GOP National Committeeman. "All of them were white Democrats. Today there are eight Democrats and seven Republicans, and only three members of the delegation are white Democrats. White Democrats have become a minority." An almost identical pattern holds in Charleston.

"In order for a Republican to win an open seat in an urban or suburban district, the base figure is 65 to 70 percent white turnout," said Courson. "In order to run against an incumbent Democrat, you are looking at {a minimum of} 75 percent white turnout {to win}."

Robert Coble, former executive director of the state Democratic Party and currently a Richland County councilman, presented these same calculations from the vantage point of a white Democrat: "If you are going to win in Richland County, you have to get 28 percent of the white vote." His assessment presumes that a Democratic nominee gets 95 percent or more of the black vote.

"Race is still a dominant voting factor in South Carolina and Republicans have capitalized on that in a very effective way," said Dwight Drake, key strategist for former Democratic Governor Richard Riley.

"It always ends up with the bugaboo of southern politics -- race. It always boomerangs back to that. We haven't come to terms with it," said Richard Harpootlian, a white Democratic Richland County councilman. "I got the hell beaten out of me in some of the white precincts."

Ironically, civil rights activists are making the Democrats' problems worse. The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is challenging 20 cities and counties that elect their councilmen at large, thus diluting the impact of black votes. In the past, the shift from at-large elections to single-member districts as promoted by the NAACP has, in political terms, benefited Republicans at least as much as blacks. After court suits forced the state Senate to move to single-member districts in 1984, blacks went from zero to four, while Republicans went from five to 10.

Here in Richland County, black leaders are seeking to replace the at-large election of the county council with single-member districts following the boundaries of the districts for state House seats, a plan that would assure the election of four out of 11 blacks to the council.

"There is a possibility that there might be a Republican majority," according to John Roy Harper II, the NAACP's attorney and a Democrat, "but we have to advance our concerns."

While conceding that blacks have a host of legitimate demands, white Democrats don't know how to respond. "I know what we have to do, I just don't know how to do it," said Drake. "We cannot go back on our commitment to the fullfilment of equality, but we have to change the perception of a lot of white voters that the Democratic Party wants to treat blacks more equally and more fairly than whites."

Don Fowler, a Democratic National Committeeman and former chairman of the state party, contends that the Republicans are currently "on a short-term roll," but he has voiced fears that "within a short time, we could be a black party in the South, deserted by the whites, a band of hopeless people waiting for favors from Washington . . . "

Other white Democrats, including Sen. Ernest (Fritz) Hollings (D-S.C.), have been more outspoken in challenging black leaders. Hollings recently denounced as a "lynch mob" the South Carolina groups, including the NAACP, that opposed the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court, and contended that "when Jesse {L. Jackson} stood up and said 'My time has come' and 'We want it all,' they {whites} went in droves and as a result we got a Republican governor in South Carolina."

Whites casting ballots in the 1986 gubernatorial election voted Republican for governor by a margin of roughly 3.8 to 2, while losing blacks voted by a margin of 9 to 1, enough to pull out a GOP victory.

Race also colors legislative contests. In seemingly safe Democratic districts with a solid base of 35 to 50 percent black voters, the emergent Republican Party has begun holding primary contests which siphon off white participants from the Democratic primary.

In a hard-core Democratic state House district in Edgefield, where 44 percent of the vote is black and no Republican had been elected since Reconstruction, the GOP primary drew 1,200 voters. On the Democratic side, George Brightharp, a black funeral director, won the nomination. In the special election this year, the vote in this supposedly firm Democratic terrain split along racial lines, as the GOP nominee, John Pettigrew, beat Brightharp 54 to 46.

"We can pull away enough {white} primary votes in a lot of these districts to guarantee they nominate a black and then we take the general," a key GOP strategist commented.

While the Democrats struggle with race, and the GOP continues to gain strength among whites, the Republican Party has apparently ended an internal conflict that had the potential to match the Democrats' black-white divisions. Earlier this year forces supporting Robertson challenged the established GOP leadership -- heavily backing Bush -- for control of the party, but both factions have now buried the hatchet to concentrate on drawing more white voters into the party.Robertson is mobilizing the evangelical and charismatic communities and plans to conduct an intense advertising campaign to expand his base beyond them. Dole has had significant success getting the support of business leaders who, in the past, were either independent or leaning toward the Democratic Party, including two of the state's leading bankers, W. W. (Hootie) Johnson and Robert V. Royall Jr.

Bush maintains a strong lead in polls of from 2-1 to 3-1 over his closest competititor, Dole. The stakes are high for Bush because of his strong early lead and the support he enjoys from leading state Republicans. A bad finish in South Carolina would therefore be especially damaging.