Lamar Alexander, the former Republican governor of Tennessee, says "Super Tuesday" reminds him of a hurricane warning off the Carolina coast. "Either it'll be a big 'un and really decide some things, or it'll just blow right by, off to sea."

With 16 days to go, this novel, 20-state event is far better poised to clarify the Republican side of presidential contest than the Democratic side, where it may just blow off to sea.

That's not what its creators

-- the moderate-to-conservative southern statehouse Democrats who wanted to give their constituents the opportunity to leave a big imprint on their party's nomination process -- had in mind.

"Super Tuesday is an idea whose time has not yet come," said Eddie Williams, head of the Joint Center for Political Studies.

The turnout of southern Democratic primary voters, he noted, is likely to be more black and more liberal than the overall Democratic electorate of the region.

As a result, he expects the delegate totals to be fragmented among three or four Democratic candidates on March 8, leaving the more definitive choices to be made later by states in the North and West.

On the other hand, Super Tuesday offers Vice President Bush a chance to take a firm early command of his party's nomination fight, in a region where his identification with President Reagan is an advantage. It also will provide the first and best broad test of the strength of former television evangelist Pat Robertson's candidacy in a region that leads the nation in its percentage of fundamentalist Christians.

Whatever happens on March 8 will happen on a huge scale. Super Tuesday is one-third of a national primary. Twenty states and one territory -- 14 of them in the South or along its border -- will hold primaries or caucuses that will select 31.4 percent of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and 35.2 percent to the Republican National Convention in New Orleans.

The civics book objection to this sort of broad, single-day test has always been egalitarian. It is argued that only front-runners have the endorsements, organization and money to compete over so vast a landscape. Long shots are better served by sequential contests, starting out in small states, where they can "retail" their way, handshake by handshake, into the nation's living rooms.

But that analysis overlooks one of the most salient facts of modern nomination politics: It has become a game of lightning quick rises, spills and rhythm shifts. Super Tuesday will take place exactly a month after the Iowa precinct caucuses. It is more accurate to say that it favors whichever candidate -- long shot or front-runner -- happens to be hot at the end of that opening month.

In 1984, then-Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), with no organization beyond the covers of Time and Newsweek, won six of nine "Super Tuesday" states. Why? Two weeks before, he was the upset winner in New Hampshire.

Bush currently is the best-positioned candidate in either party in this curious momentum game, though it is a word he has come to dread, having learned in 1980 how fast it can vanish.

Last week, he convincingly disposed of a suspicion that has dogged him throughout his public life: that he is a political hemophiliac. In the New Hampshire primary, he stopped bleeding from a massive wound inflicted the week before in Iowa. Now, it is his chief rival, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who must regroup and reformulate a campaign strategy.

The Democratic side still has no hot candidate. It seems likely that the 1,307 delegates up for grabs March 8 will be split three or four ways. The surprise is that Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis is well-positioned to get the most, in part because he has the most strength in the six nonsouthern states, and in part because a "liberal fortress" strategy in the big cities of the South will yield plenty of convention delegates in proportional representation contests. Dukakis is shooting for 400 to 500 delegates.

In 1984, Jesse L. Jackson got 222 delegates in the 20 states that will be at stake March 8. This year, his ability to attract more white votes and a rules change (the lowering of "thresholds" to 15 percent from 20 percent, at which a candidate qualifies for delegates in a congressional district) mean he could get 300 delegates, perhaps slightly more.

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) will compete for roughly 500 to 600 of the 1,307 delegates. Gore has built his campaign on a Super Tuesday strategy, and he has been skillful in getting endorsements from the politicians who created it. But Gephardt is battle-tested and has a much sharper substantive message for southern voters. Early polls suggest that he is better positioned to become the leading moderate in the field.

Super Tuesday was put together by Democratic state legislators after the 1984 presidential debacle, when the Democratic ticket of Walter F. Mondale and Geraldine A. Ferraro carried just 38.1 percent of the vote in the South. The southern moderates felt aggrieved by the nomination calendar which produced that ticket. The three candidates they had wanted to vote for -- Ohio Sen. John Glenn, South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. Hollings and former Florida governor Reubin Askew -- were all out of the race or moribund before the South got its turn.

So they created the 20-state megacontest. But because Iowa and New Hampshire still precede it, it is not clear how much has changed, except that this year, after March 8, the only glimpse of the region any presidential candidate will get is through the rear-view mirror.

"It's the latest effort by a disgruntled group of outsiders to affect the process by tinkering with the rules," said Ann Lewis, a former political director of the Democratic National Committee. "It is the sort of thing liberals used to do, until they got smart."

Defenders of Super Tuesday, such as former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb, argue that its mere existence has had a moderating influence on the rhetoric of the Democratic field. But it did not produce a clear conservative Democratic candidate -- such as Robb or Sen. Sam Nunn (Ga.), whom Robb had urged to run. And even Robb acknowledges that "some of us who are Dick's friends are a little surprised" at the leftward tilt of Gephardt's candidacy in recent weeks.

All of this pleases the Republicans. In nine of the southern states, voters are free to choose between the Democratic or Republican primary. The net effect of Super Tuesday, said Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), "will be to create 300,000 or 400,000 new Republican voters," registered Democrats who find the menu more inviting on the Republican side. "It'll help us with party building," Gingrich said. That would be the most unintended consequence of all.

Here is a rundown of the Super Tuesday races in the two parties: Democrats

Despite the goals of the architects of Super Tuesday to give the South an independent voice, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary results have significantly altered voter opinion in the region.

In areas as diverse as Texas, Florida and Maryland, surveys showed Gephardt making strong gains among Democratic voters after he won the Iowa contest.

Similarly, in the week after the New Hampshire contest, Dukakis, the winner there, shot up from 14 percent to 27 percent in Texas to take the lead there, according to a poll published today by The Dallas Morning News.

In the process, Dukakis eclipsed Gephardt who had held the lead after his Iowa victory. After coming in second in New Hampshire, Gephardt fell from 27 to 15 percent in today's Texas poll.

A poll by Mason Dixon Applied Research in Jacksonville -- a key battleground in Florida -- taken after Iowa but before New Hampshire, showed Gephardt climbing from 4 percent before the caucuses to 16 percent afterward. In Maryland, The Baltimore Sun a week ago found Gephardt had taken a slight lead with 22 percent, edging out Dukakis and Jackson.

Even before the New Hampshire results were in, the Texas and Jacksonville polls showed support increasing for Dukakis. In Texas, he went from 8 percent in October to 14 percent a week ago, to 27 percent in today's survey; in Jacksonville, the gain was smaller.

Finally, the polls all suggest that Gore's strategy of sitting out Iowa and only making a token bid in New Hampshire creates the danger that voters in the South will not perceive him as an active competitor for the Democratic nomination.

In the Texas and Jacksonville surveys, Gore's support has remained flat through the Iowa caucuses, despite his success winning numerous endorsements in Texas and Florida. In today's Texas poll, he rose to 11 percent from 6 percent, within the poll's 6 percentage-point margin of error.

In addition to the influence of the early contests on Super Tuesday, another major factor determining the Democratic outcome on March 8 will be the success of the Republican Party in its drive to siphon off traditionally Democratic conservative voters.

In Georgia, for example, Democratic Party officials claim that it is likely that Republican turnout could roughly equal that in the Democratic primary.

If there is a 50-50 split, Jackson would become the favorite to win a plurality, if not a majority, in Georgia. Almost all the participants in the GOP primary are expected to be white, which means that blacks, 24 percent of the state's total voting-age population, would make up 40 to 50 percent of the Democratic primary electorate.

Maren Hesla, political director of the Georgia Democratic Party, pointed out that if white, rural conservative turnout remains low, as it has been in recent years, either Dukakis or Jackson has the potential to win the plurality. If, however, either Gore or Gephardt succeeds in restoring rural white participation, either could gain a victory. "There are scenarios for everyone," she said.

Here are the prospects and problems facing each of the major candidates on Super Tuesday:Jackson: He is viewed as virtually assured of winning a plurality in Mississippi, where 31 percent of the voting-age population is black as is probably more than 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate.

In addition, he has a shot at a plurality in Alabama (23 percent black); Georgia (24 percent), and Louisiana (27 percent). Each of these states except Louisiana has open primaries, which means that GOP turnout is likely to be high, benefiting Jackson.

"Jesse Jackson could become the 'Mr. March' of the Democratic Party," Democratic pollster Peter Hart said. Dukakis: The Massachusetts governor goes into Super Tuesday with the advantage that his state and neighboring Rhode Island hold their primaries that day.

In the South, Dukakis has developed a "liberal pocket" strategy, focusing on four key states with large urban areas: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, along with Arkansas, where campaign strategists contend Dukakis has some strength.

Winning a plurality in at least one southern state is important for Dukakis' political credibility because he is viewed by a number of southern Democrats as a northern liberal with little chance of carrying southern states in the November general election. Gephardt: At the end of last year, the Missouri congressman pulled almost all his organization out of the South to concentrate on Iowa.

After winning Iowa with a populist message promising to counter foreign trade barriers with parallel American action, and attacking the merger and acquisition practices of "corporate America," Gephardt has gained significantly in preliminary southern polls.

With his financial resources depleted, Gephardt can fall back on the backing of 35 House members, including Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), who has been used extensively to appeal to the elderly.

If the voting patterns of Iowa and New Hampshire remain true in the South, Gephardt's base of support is almost the opposite of Dukakis'. Gephardt's supporters tend to be self-identified conservatives, less educated, more rural, blue-collar and somewhat poorer than average.

The problem for Gephardt is that many of these voters have stopped participating in Democratic primaries. And he lacks the cash and time to conduct the intense personal and media campaigning characteristic of his Iowa drive. Gore: While Gephardt is short of cash, Gore's coffers are overflowing. The problem for Gore, however, is that he has no victories and little prospect of a win to bring to Super Tuesday.

In addition to money, Gore has the advantage of a strong base in his home state of Tennessee and strong name recognition in neighboring states, including Alabama and Kentucky.

As for the polls, Fred Martin, Gore's manager, said, "I'm not concerned about the polls. I'm not concerned about the polls. I'm truthfully not concerned about the polls. Sen. Gore intends to make Super Tuesday the deciding event."

Gore's strategy appears to be to discredit his opponents, with harsh attacks on Gephardt, Dukakis and Jackson, and to attempt to portray himself as the most conservative of the Democratic candidates on defense issues. Simon and Hart: Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) has been concentrating on sections other than the South to revive his campaign. Hart has fallen to single-digit numbers after his return to the Democratic contest and does not appear to be a serious contender in the South.Republicans

The battle for South Carolina's 37 Republican convention delegates, to be selected three days before Super Tuesday, is shaping up as the key test of whether any of the Republican challengers -- Dole, Robertson or Kemp -- can stall Bush's southern base.

Robertson is betting every chip he has on the voters of South Carolina to provide a comeback from his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire. "I can't come out of here second or third. I've got to win," he said.

Similarly, the beleaguered Kemp campaign has made a last-minute decision to put every free dollar, raised or borrowed, into a drive to revive the conservative wing of the state's GOP. In the past, the right wing of the South Carolina GOP has been more than willing to defy party wisdom and defeat the establishment's annointed favorite. "It's going to be a full-court press," said Charles Black, Kemp's manager.

For Kemp and Robertson, however, it will be an uphill battle. Not only did Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, cut his political teeth in the fine, if often venal, art of intraparty warfare in South Carolina, almost every member of the GOP power elite is in Bush's corner.

Across the South, the Republican nomination fight, in effect, will test the status of a party that went through an internal revolution in 1964 when the drive to nominate Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and opposition to civil rights turned much of the southern GOP into a conservative, deeply ideological movement.

Not only did the South lead the Goldwater charge against the liberal, eastern establishment wing of the GOP, but it also provided hard-core support for Ronald Reagan in 1968 and 1976, support that sustained him through to the 1980 election.

Bush has acquired the support in the region of many of the leaders of the Goldwater and Reagan drives. If Bush is able to carry the South on March 8, it will be a clear signal that the GOP in the region has lost its rebellious edge. Both Kemp and Robertson are gambling that the GOP has not turned into a middle-aged bastion of moderation, that the embers of anti-establishment revolt can be rekindled.

The major unknown, as it has been elsewhere this year, is the strength of Robertson's support. In the past two presidential elections, white, evangelical Christians have demonstrated a willingness to cast ballots for Reagan in percentages approaching the loyalty of black voters to Democratic presidential candidates. This year many, but by no means all, of those white Christians have been mobilized by Robertson and they are showing a degree of intensity and fervor unseen since the Goldwater days 24 years ago.

However, the southern Republican Party structure -- and the GOP primary electorate -- is no longer just the paper-thin shells of the early 1960s, when conservative whites could move in and crush a weak old guard.

Robertson's forces have run roughshod over state and county Republican Party organizations in various sections of the South, but regulars have fended them off, at least temporarily, in Alabama and Florida.

The real question, however, is whether Robertson can put together pluralities of the primary electorate, an increasingly tough job for an outsider candidacy challenging a growing southern Republican Party.

The winner-take-all system for GOP delegates in many southern states appears to give a large advantage to Bush, who leads in the polls and needs only a plurality in most states and congressional districts to take all the convention delegates.

The major candidates and their strengths and weaknesses:Bush: The vice president is the favored candidate in every southern state, based on polls and estimates of party leaders, many of whom support him. He has organizations in every state, and plenty of cash for advertising.

Bush seems to be the beneficiary of the support Reagan receives from southern Republicans. His third-place finish in Iowa appeared to hurt him in some sections of the South, but the New Hampshire appeared to have offset that. After New Hampshire, Bush's support in Texas shot up to a striking 66 percent, more than 50 points ahead of either Dole or Robertson, according to today's Dallas Morning News poll. Robertson: Kemp's entry into the South Carolina contest may help Robertson in his gamble. While Robertson has a clearly defined target constituency, Kemp should, in part, cut into the party regulars, who might otherwise go with Bush.

Robertson's willingness to place so much emphasis on South Carolina, however, has surprised a number of his competitors: not only will Bush be tough to beat there, Robertson has a number of other states where his campaign is expected to do well, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and possibly Georgia.

Most of these states have open primaries, which will allow Robertson supporters who might otherwise consider themselves to be Democrats, to vote in the GOP contest. In Louisiana, which has a closed primary, Robertson has been conducting a successful program to switch registered Democrats to the GOP. Dole: The failure of the Senate minority leader to pull out a victory in New Hampshire after momentarily leading in the polls there was a major setback to Dole's southern drive. Dole fell from 20 to 12 percent in Texas, according to The Dallas Morning News poll.

In the South, the New Hampshire results appear to have at least momentarily thrown the Dole strategy into a chaotic tailspin. In South Carolina, for example, local and national Dole operatives one day clearly signaled that Dole was not going to challenge Bush. The next day, Dole himself arrived in Greenville to declare that he intended to fully contest the state.

At the moment, Dole operatives are attempting to downgrade the dominance of the South on Super Tuesday, emphasizing instead states outside the region. While this may signal the campaign's fear of Bush's strength in the South, the alternative emphasis on the northern states may not be much help because Bush is strong is several of them, too.

Dole is conducting extensive polling to determine where he can target his time and money in the Super Tuesday states. The preliminary findings suggest that he will focus on North Carolina, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky and perhaps Arkansas. Kemp: Burdened by a cash shortage throughout the campaign, the New York congressman, until now, has neglected the South. Kemp's decision to target South Carolina may make sense, but it is very late in the game in a state where both Bush and Robertson have been very active for over a year.

Kemp apparently has made the calculation that to be viable in the Super Tuesday contests, he has to perform well -- and probably win -- in South Carolina, an assessment widely shared by GOP strategists.

Staff writers David Maraniss and Kent Jenkins contributed to this report.