BIRMINGHAM, JAN. 7 -- Southern Democrats who had high hopes that the March 8 "Super Tuesday" primaries would lure candidates away from the early Iowa and New Hampshire contests into the 13 southern states holding contests that day received more evidence this week that such a strategy still needs work.

Only three of the seven Democratic candidates for president showed up in this sleet-crippled city tonight for Alabama's only pre-primary debate, planned by local officials to be the major event of the state party's political season.

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), Jesse L. Jackson and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) were the only candidates who agreed to appear for the statewide televised event. That limited response has mightily bruised local organizers' feelings. (Jackson was unable to attend because he was stranded in Minneapolis.)

But Alabama party officials are in an uproar over the failure of a majority of the candidates to appear. They reserved their sharpest criticism for Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who is considered likely do well in New Hampshire and is considered the northerner with the most to gain from building strength in the South early.

Gore and Jackson, according to party officials, are the front-runers in Alabama, where Jackson is expected to benefit from a strong black vote and Gore has received institutional backing from elected officials and influential groups such as the 63,000-member Alabama Educational Association.

"I do feel it is a snub of this candidate and of this city," said Albert W. LaPierre, the executive director of the state Democratic Party.

"There are probably five debates a week in Iowa," LaPierre said. "To come South one time is not going to hurt them, it's going to help them."

The early going in the South has been a keen disappointment to many Democratic activists who theorized that candidates would not sacrifice an opportunity to reach the potential 1,307 delegates -- 40 percent of the total -- at stake in the South in exchange for the tiny but influential early northern states.

"Florida and New Hampshire might be just as important as Iowa and New Hampshire," said Florida House Speaker Jon Mills.

Mills, who endorsed Gore this week in Washington, said that part of the reason some candidates might feel their time is better spent in Iowa is because Gore has lined up white southern support as Jackson has assembled the unified black support of leaders, such as Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, that eluded him in 1984.

"After Super Tuesday . . . the people definitely left standing will be Gore and Jackson and somebody else," Mills said. "How to be that somebody else is the question."

Arrington, according to party insiders, was especially miffed by Dukakis' failure to appear. Marcia Hale, Dukakis' southern coordinator, said from Boston that the campaign was forced to "make some tough decisions, and this is one of them."

Alabama Republicans are less concerned about Super Tuesday and hope to benefit from Democratic primary crossover voters who like neither Gore nor Jackson and know little about the rest of the Iowa-preoccupied Democratic field.

GOP National committeeman Perry Hooper Sr. said of the Super Tuesday effort, "I think they {Democrats} thought it was going to be more than it has turned out to be."

Alabama Democratic Party Chairman John Baker agreed. "We're only having one debate, and only three people are showing up," he said. "It's not a slap in the face, but it's a signal, because, in my view, those who are not coming have written off Alabama on Super Tuesday."