TEXARKANA, TEX. -- On the surface, politics goes on as it has for decades in this community where a room in the once-plush Hotel Grim is $15.82 a night, the three houses of ill repute on Fourth Street have been closed for years and the Baptist bookstore on the dry side of State Line road faces an army of liquor stores on the other side of the street.

In the morning, Dexter Henry -- who is running for a third term as Precinct One county commissioner against two challengers, both friends -- stops by the Triple J on Route 59. "My opponent been by here?" he asked the waitress as she pours coffee. "Yep." "Did he leave a big tip?" "Well, he did give me a good tip for the {horse} track."

"Uh-oh, I'd better worry, I guess."

As in past elections, Henry, who retired from the Lone Star Army Ammunition Plant on Highway 82, faces only Democratic opposition. No Republican has been elected to local office here in Bowie County in more than 100 years. People are Democrats, said Marion House, because "Grandma was. Grandpa was. And I am. It's kind of like religion."

In this county where the stores are still called Clark's Grocery and Ben's Place instead of 7-Eleven or Giant, few ever vote Republican. Even in the 1986 gubernatorial primary, when there was a hot GOP fight and nothing much going on with the Democrats, only 991 of Bowie County's 42,932 voters were Republican, while 11,759 voted in the Democratic contest.

Those tiny Republican turnout figures, however, are central to the strategy of a political insurgency that is taking place almost unnoticed here on the western edge of the piney woods and the Bible Belt.

Organizers of the presidential campaign of Pat Robertson, the former evangelical-charismatic minister, see Bowie County and sections like it across the South as a golden opportunity to overwhelm what Republicans there are, many of them aligned with Vice President Bush.

"In these firm Democratic districts, there is no reason we can't win," said Jeff Whitesides, who is running Robertson's Tennessee campaign. "The party is practically nonexistent in those counties."

Richard Quinn, Robertson's South Carolina manager, said, "In parts of the South where the Republican Party has been very weak, Pat has the opportunity to bring in new people . . . . These southern rural folks are basically conservative, religious and believe in family values. They really should be in the Republican Party."

Bowie County is a part of East Texas' First Congressional District. In the 1980 presidential primary between Bush and Ronald Reagan, the entire district cast 6,690 votes for the two men. The up-scale Seventh District in Houston's affluent suburbs cast 87,711 votes for Bush or Reagan.

But no matter what the turnout in the two districts, the men and women who drive pickup trucks to work at the Red River Army Depot or haul lumber for the John Cunningham Co. get to pick three delegates to the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. That is exactly the same number chosen by the Texas Commerce Bank and Tenneco executives who drive Mercedes and BMWs from their River Oaks homes in the Seventh Disrict.

Roughly 60 of the 601 Republican delegates to be chosen on March 8 Super Tuesday from the tier of states accross the South from Oklahoma to Virgina will come from areas with long histories of extremely low Republican primary turnouts, a target that provides Robertson with a potential, but by no means assured, core of delegate strength.

Even as establishment Republican leaders work to limit Robertson delegates in states like Michigan and Hawaii, or he competes in contests where he is likely to come in behind the front-runners, his steady effort to find targets of opportunities like the ones here to amass delegates one by one could ensure him a seat at the Republican Party convention table.

In Tennessee, for example, there are at least three congressional districts combining tendencies toward deep religious convictions and low Republican turnout, which may be even lower because of the Democratic pull of Sen. Albert Gore's presidential bid. In Arkansas and North Carolina, Robertson is guaranteed delegates if he can get better than 4 and 10 percent of the state-wide GOP primary vote respectively, and more as his percentage goes up.

Robertson generally runs in the low teens in polls throughout the South. His major vulnerability in much of the Bible Belt is his belief in faith healing and speaking in tongues, practices that often do not sit well in many of the more traditional Southern Baptist congregations, which make up the single largest Protestant denomination by far in the South.

"If he didn't have that baggage, he would be as tough as a pine knot," said Barry Telford, a Democratic East Texas state representative and a Southern Baptist.

The Bush adherents say they are not complacent.

"I believe they {the Robertson forces} are going to try to pull an end run in Bowie County," said Jay Womack, the local Bush chairman. "We know they are there, and we are not just sitting waiting for them," said Kevin Mooma, Bush's Texas political director.

Preliminary indications suggest that the Bush campaign, which is far ahead in Texas polls and has a lock on almost every Republican leader in the state, has a fight on its hands here in Bowie County and the entire First District.

The Bowie County Robertson campaign is being run by Sterling E. Lacy, PhD., a family counselor at the Emmanuel Clinic on Texas Boulevard, a member of the John Birch Society who moved here five years ago from Kansas where, in 1976, he was state coordinator of George Wallace's presidential campaign.

"We set up phone banks," Lacy said. "We used mainly church lists. Like, if several dozen people belonged to a certain church in town, we'd say 'Hey, if you've got a list of church members' and they did, why we had then bring it in that night and that was the list we'd call."

The names were then given over to the Bowie County Republican headquarters where the party breaks down the names for all campaigns by precinct for Election Day get-out-the-vote drives. For the Robertson campaign, however, the number of households of prospective supporters already roughly equals the total turnout of 991 in the 1986 Republican primary. Over in Lamar County, Sue Fancher, who is coordinating the Robertson First District drive, said the campaign has already gathered over 400 pro-Robertson names. In the 1986 primary, 346 voters in all were registered for the GOP.

The driving force behind the Roberston campaign here is the deep moral tension in this part of the county where smoking, drinking and dancing are, in some quarters, forbidden.

At a cafe on the Arkansas side of Texarkana, where you can buy a drink without having to join a club, a kind of quiet takes over the bar and the men in cowboy hats stare straight ahead on a Saturday night as the juke box plays Charlie Pride songs of conscience.

The next morning at the 10:30 service of the Northside Assembly of God, the Rev. B.J. (Bobby Joe) Smith looks out at the congregation of 450 and says that if anyone feels that they would go to hell if they died today, they should raise their hand.

Smith calls a young man and four others who had raised their hands, to the front, where they stand. There, the elders of the church step forward and lay hands on the foreheads and shoulders of the five, as Smith prays aloud, and men and women throughout the congregation lift up their arms to welcome God's spirit. "Usually, they {the people who come forward in public confession} feel they need someone to stand with them in prayer," Smith said afterward.

At the start of the service, Smith announced from the pulpit that Dede Robertson, Pat Robertson's wife, will soon visit the church.

Just on the other side of I-30 from the Northside Church, Dr. Lawrence Kennedy is delivering his sermon at the Church On The Rock, congregation 1,300. He proudly tells the congregation of his recent opportunity to appear on Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network (CBN).

"I like Pat Robertson a lot but I also like Jack Kemp," Kennedy said in an interview later. "As far as the people {in the congregation} are concerned, a lot of those people are pro-Robertson, very stongly behind Pat Robertson."

Back at the Triple J Restaurant, however, no one talks about the Republican battles between Robertson and Bush. Dexter Henry and his two competitors are fighting over a post that pays $27,500, no small potatoes in a community where nice homes cost $30,000. What are the issues raised by one of the opponents? "He just wants the job, and I don't want him to have it," Henry replies.

For Dorman Green, Henry Owens and Billy Neff, three of the men who have exchanged greetings with Henry, the Democratic presidential field is pretty lackluster, but there is no way they will vote in the Republican primary and lose the chance to help pick the Democratic commissioner candidate.

The winner of that race decides "which roads get paved and when," Green said, an issue here and in many other parts of the South greater than Bush, Robertson and the Republican convention.