GREENSBORO, N.C. -- From Civil War to civil rights, the South has always been fertile sod for send-'em-a-message politics.

In nine days, it gets a chance to tell the rest of the country exactly what is on the minds of its people, as it holds the first-ever regional presidential primary. But "Super Tuesday" catches the South uncharacteristically mute.

The region is without a distinctive message to send and without much enthusiasm for the crop of candidates who would be its messenger.

"The days of a southern strategy don't exist anymore," said John Connaughton, an economist at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Culturally, he said, the region may still be of a piece, "but economically it isn't. It is less homogeneous than the Midwest or the Great Plains. I don't think you will find a consistent single message, not an economic message."

The quality of southern "otherness" has been eroded over the past quarter-century by urbanization, in-migration and racial progress. Moreover, there is such a chasm now between the region's booming metropolitan areas -- like this center for textiles, furniture, electronics and regional warehousing -- and the region's impoverished rural areas that the South cannot speak with a single voice on the economic concerns that seem uppermost on everyone's mind as the 1988 election approaches.

Is the middle class losing its standard of living? Is the nation losing control of its economic destiny? Even here in the Greensboro area, where the unemployment rate is a handsome 3.3 percent, how you answer questions like this mostly has to do with how easy it is to balance the family checkbook.

"I grew up in the nice, comfortable 1950s," said Barbara Whitfill, 44, "when dad worked and mom brought up the kids." Now she and her husband need two incomes to manage their household. "I don't do it for fun," she said of her office manager's job. And even with the extra income, she doubts she will have a retirement as comfortable as the one her folks enjoy, in a house that was paid off 20 years ago. "I say to my kids, 'If you don't take care of me when I get older, I'm going to be a bag lady.' "

Whitfill was one of 13 middle-class and upper-middle-class Greensboro residents invited by The Washington Post to talk about the kind of concerns they would like to bring to the attention of the next president.

Her sense of being squeezed was echoed by Virginia Driscoll, 45, a single parent of two young adults. "My kids are still at home. I have three friends whose children are in their early 20s, and they're all still at home," Driscoll said. "That didn't happen when I was growing up -- at least not that I was aware of. By the time you were 18 or 19, you were expected to get a job, at least get a one- or two-room apartment. Or go to college -- and parents often paid for that. It was more affordable."

But James Adelman, 45, a physician, feels none of this sense of generational backsliding. "I would wonder whether any of us are working as hard as our parents worked," he said. "My dad hardly knew what recreation was. I work significantly less hard than he did . . . . It's a life style choice that I'm able to make."

Tim Sessoms, 26, a youth counselor, has a similar perspective. "I remember when I learned how to ride a bicycle. It was three days before my dad got to see me do it, because he worked night and day. I don't work that much at all." Still, he is already able to put a little money away each month for a fund to pay for college for his young daughter and his next child, who is due any day.

Nationwide polls suggest that Adelman and Sessoms are in a minority when it comes to their sense of ease and comfort about their standard of living, but it is no surprise to find plenty of that sentiment in a place like Greensboro.

"The economy is blossoming," said Mark Bush, senior development coordinator for the local Chamber of Commerce. "Textiles have rebounded, operating on a profitable basis, the furniture industry is hot . . . . In 1987, Guilford County {in which Greensboro is located} added 9,000 jobs, and that's net jobs."

In sharp contrast to the coast of North Carolina, where the "red tide" has been decimating the shellfishing industry and local manufacturing has not come back from damage done in the middle of this decade, unemployment in the seven counties around Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point is just 3.3 percent, steadily falling from 3.9 percent a year ago and 4.4 percent two years ago.

In the state as a whole, "we are cranking out jobs like there was no tomorrow," Connaughton said. "There are two economies here like in any southern state. The growth is in the metropolitan areas. In Charlotte, if there was a city bird, it would be the sky crane."

In rural areas, however, Connaughton noted that plant closings have devastated communities. "What do you do with people who have been working in plants all their lives? Working in a plant is almost like a culture; it's hard to replace it."

One industry that has made an extraordinary comeback, according to local economists, has been textiles.

Darrell Carter, a 49-year-old textile worker from Gibsonville near here, knows what it is like for the dollar to fluctuate wildly. He was laid off twice, in 1980 and 1985, when a strong dollar triggered a surge of imports.

"Now, when the dollar is weak, we are working seven days a week," Carter said, and his plant has begun exporting its denim products. The rebound in the textile industry has given Carter a new confidence in the ability of the United States to compete in the economic marketplace. "If we set our policy, we can be on top again. We don't have to settle for second place."

For the rest of the group, however, the complexities of the international marketplace have created an unsettled and unresolved view of the United States and its relationship to the rest of the world. There was very little raw anger, of the sort that Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has been trying to tap, about unfair foreign competition. Adelman said consumers have been "voting with their dollars" for more imports. And Denis Whitfill, a salesman, noted with some irony that Burlington Industries, a major textile manfuacturer headquartered near here, recently sold off a portion of the company to Japanese interests in order to stave off a hostile takeover bid. "This is a company that says, 'Buy America,' " he chuckled.

Is it good or bad that foreigners are buying up U.S. assets? These Tarheels aren't sure; the whole set of issues leaves them perplexed. Many said, for example, that as the rest of the world's standard of living rises, it is only natural that this country's relative dominance should ebb. Some said the United States should adjust gracefully. Others said it runs counter to the national character to adjust to decline. "I think we're still in the kicking-and-screaming stage," said Kent Huffman, 48, a pharmacist.

The one uniformly proffered response to this worry over lagging economic competitiveness is to invest more in education. Some think a more active government -- the very idea is an old bogeyman in the southern mindset -- would be a good thing. "People have gotten used to big government," Sherri Huffman said. "It's part of our lives." (Case in point: though there was some grumbling about a school busing plan in effect in this area, the whole issue of government-ordered desegregation does not inflame the passions it did 10 and 20 years ago.)

There were six Democrats, five Republicans and two independents in the group, and some issues broke along predictable partisan lines. Dann Newby, 23, an independent, worried that the poor have gotten poorer during the Reagan years and he favored more spending for the needy. The Republicans cited the need for a strong defense -- though foreign policy matters barely came up during the two-hour discussion.

Everyone agreed that the two preachers in the presidential race -- Jesse L. Jackson and Pat Robertson -- have been getting through to voters because they talk about "real problems" like drugs and teen-age pregnancy. But no one was sure either man has real answers. Robertson was "scary" to much of the group, and even his lone supporter, Sessoms (who described him as "very smart and very rich") acknowledged being puzzled by Roberton's recent statements about missiles in Cuba and hostages in Lebanon.

Jackson was praised as a smart, charismatic orator, but no one thought of him as presidential. "He's paved the way," several said, for a black president.

The other candidates didn't do much better. Vice President Bush got a review that ran from "wimp" to "silver spoon" to "eastern establishment," with a "smart" and "conservative" thrown in. Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) came across to this group as "arrogant," "tactless" and "direct." The mud-in-your-eye flavor of the campaigning between Bush and Dole this past month left these voters digusted. "I get the impression we're in the Colosseum watching them throw axes and knives at each other," said Kent Huffman, a Republican. "They've discredited themselves."

On the Democratic side, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.) got some good notices, but mostly for his looks. Gephardt was savaged as "opportunistic," "protectionist" and a "flip-flopper." Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis went from "blah" to "manager" to "responsible."

The good notices were given without much enthusiasm. Newby, a student, said he yearns for a president who can kindle the idealism and selflessness that John F. Kennedy called forth -- who can move the country beyond what Sessoms called the "have-it-now" ethic of the 1980s. There was much nodding around the table, but no one indicated that sort of leader is in the race.

"It's a bunch of nobodies," said Trip Adams, an attorney.

"It's disappointing," said Barbara Whitfill, also a Democrat. "I would just think that out of the whole Democratic party, someone of stonger national stature could surface . . . . Someone who's got charisma, can inspire people, can also hire good people to manage the government. That's what I would like to see emerging. Surely there is some Democrat in this country, somewhere . . . . "

Political researcher Colette Rhoney contributed to this report.