ECLECTIC, ALA. -- The scene in front of the Piggly Wiggly store here could have been set in 1946 with "Big Jim" Folsom standing there, promising to lift the poor folks of this small town northeast of Montgomery out of poverty with better education and new roads.

But it was a sweltering evening earlier this month when Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Paul Hubbert climbed onto the back of a red pickup truck in the grocery parking lot. He echoed Folsom's promises, almost to the word, in a poignant reminder that the issues in Alabama have returned to what they were a half-century ago. Maybe they never really changed.

Folsom's vision of better schools and wider highways failed. In two terms as governor, he could not bring about the changes he sought. In 1962, he lost a bid for a third term to George C. Wallace and suddenly all other issues were lost in the glare of the national spotlight on civil rights. Wallace thrived. But as one local observer said, Alabama became lost on an emotional detour that lasted a generation.

Tuesday's Democratic runoff for governor, in which Hubbert, a progressive teachers union lobbyist, faces another progressive, state Attorney General Don Siegelman, is regarded as the most visible sign in recent years that Alabama is ready to emerge from the shadow of the Wallace years.

"George Wallace never really took an interest in governing," said H. Brandt "Brandy" Ayers, editor and publisher of the Anniston Star. "So you have a state that has really been leaderless and on an emotional binge for quite some time."

"We haven't had the kind of election every other southern state has had," said Bill Barnard, a political science professor at Auburn University. "The same issues that were there in 1946 are precisely the same issues for us now, but with a certain pointedness. We've never known a truly prosperous economy. We've never known a truly adequate education system."

Both Democratic candidates argue that leadership is the issue in this race. Both urge Alabama to join its neighboring states in electing a "New South" governor who can bring the kind of reforms to education and health care that have taken place elsewhere in the South.

A state in which 37 percent of the adult population is functionally illiterate should do something about its schools, they said. A state in which the infant mortality rate is ranked with the worst of Third World countries should do something about medical care, they argued.

Throughout the spring campaign leading up to the Democratic primary earlier this month, Alabama's historically dismal rankings in school funding, per capita income, school dropouts and infant deaths were laid out in a way that hadn't been heard here in decades.

Hubbert, 54, emerged from the five-way primary 50,000 votes ahead of Siegelman. He has never held elected office. But he is buoyed by the knowledge that only twice since 1914 has the second-place finisher in the primary won the Democratic runoff.

He campaigns as a populist, courting the rural, conservative white voters. His advertising and stump speeches evoke the images of the famous populists who preceded him. A black-and-white photo of Wallace flickered onto the screen in an early television ad. "Big Jim" is often mentioned by name on the campaign trail. Hubbert mixes his call for better medical care and education reform with tough talk about putting prisoners back to work on the road gangs and teaching welfare recipients to read so they can hold down jobs and get off the public trough.

Hubbert has the strongest statewide organization, built from the 70,000 members of the Alabama Education Association, which he has directed for 21 years. Under the state capitol dome in Montgomery, Hubbert is considered such a powerful lobbyist that he is known in the Senate gallery, where he sometimes sits directing votes on the floor with a nod of his head, as Pope Paul.

Siegelman, elected attorney general in 1987, has labeled Hubbert a pawn of the special interests too bound by his relationship with the teachers union to win over the opposition and lead Alabama into a new era.

Hubbert surprised voters by arguing that no new funds are needed to improve the condition of Alabama's schools. Siegelman says he will push hard to create a lottery to fund education.

Siegelman, 44, has found his strongest support among yuppies in urban areas, such as Mobile and the suburbs around Birmingham, where he has played to a growing feeling that the state has too long been cast in the role a Third World nation, allowing northern capitalists to plunder its natural resources.

Siegelman proposes to tax the vast holdings of the politically powerful timber companies at a higher rate to provide new revenue for Alabama's schools. He graphically illustrates his case by quoting the tax rates for a forest, owned by an out-of-state firm, that straddles the Alabama-Georgia border. On the Alabama side, the tax is 93 cents an acre. On the Georgia side of the line, Kimberly-Clark pays $4.34 an acre.

A poll published in the Anniston Star last week showed Hubbert leading Siegelman by 5 points. The same poll showed either Democrat losing in November to Republican Gov. Guy Hunt, a former county probate judge and a fundamentalist preacher in his hometown of Holly Pond.

In his three years in office, Hunt has not launched any sweeping reforms and has argued that Alabama's cheap labor and low wages still attract business to the state. He contends that Alabama's economy is turning around.

"Hunt is a triumph of motion over meaning," said Ayers, the newspaper publisher. "He is ubiquitous. I expect to run into him on Main Street."

Hunt's victory in 1986 is considered in political circles the accidental outcome of a bitter, self-destructive Democratic feud in which Democratic leaders stripped the party nominee of his victory at the polls and awarded it to his opponent.

"Nineteen eighty-six confirmed in the minds of some voters that the Democratic Party was hopelessly entwined with special interest groups and controlled by them against the peoples' will," Barnard said. "Hunt's greatest appeal was that he was not embroiled in this imbroglio."

The Democrats kept their politics reasonably clean in this year's primary. But last week, with the runoff race heating up, Siegelman dug out a 1985 conviction of a teacher on child molestation charges and suggested that the education association's efforts on behalf of the teacher's legal appeals were a sign that Hubbert cared more about protecting bad teachers than standing up for children.

As Siegelman's attack aired in a new television ad, Hubbert hopscotched through eastern Alabama's textile mill towns. His response was to attack Siegelman's campaign tactics. At each stop, he held up a bucket and a mop, props borrowed from the days of "Big Jim," and said it was time to "clean up the campaign."

In the back of the crowd in little Tallassee, Dorothy Schumacher just shook her head. The negative charges sounded a lot like 1986.

"That's what turned us off the last time," she said. "All this mudslinging. I sort of like Siegelman and then they got to calling each other names. It sort of turned me off. We're gonna end up with Governor Hunt again."