WILMINGTON, N.C. -- He looked at first glance like an old man as he slowly climbed the stairs to the speaker's platform in the National Guard Armory here. But there was nothing aged or feeble in the fire and brimstone of his sermon-speech. Within minutes, he had the audience of 250 on its feet, cheering the man who proudly wears the label "Senator No."

"You want to know how crazy I am?" asked Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). "I am persuaded that the Lord has given us one more chance to turn this country around."

Helms will find out if he's right on Nov. 6, when North Carolina voters decide whether to send the 68-year-old Republican back to the Senate for a fourth term or to replace him with Harvey Gantt, the liberal black former Democratic mayor of Charlotte.

The contest is a war of two cultures, two ideologies and two visions of race in the United States.

In the 1960s, when Helms was a Raleigh television commentator denouncing the civil rights movement, Gantt became the first black to enter Clemson University in neighboring South Carolina.

For three straight Senate contests, Helms pieced together slim majorities by turning elections into battlegrounds over abortion, civil rights and other emotional issues that generate intense debate. Helms's tactics have been so calculatedly divisive that any credibile candidate running against him is guaranteed 40 percent of the vote.

First appointed to the Charlotte City Council with the backing of the city's business community, Gantt twice won his seat in citywide contests by carefully playing down just those conflicts that Helms specializes in raising. He was elected mayor in 1983 and reelected in 1985 in the city where 75 percent of the residents are white, but was defeated in his bid for a third term in 1987 when his Republican opponent succeeded in placing blame at his feet for the worsening traffic problems in the growing community.

At campaign events, Helms is greeted by a sea of grizzled white faces, men and women who live along the blacktopped, two-lane highways east of Raleigh, or work in the textile mills around Kannapolis and Concord. Many of them are elderly. For these voters, often former Democrats known as "Jessecrats," the $5 chicken barbeque would be worth triple the price as long as it included a chance to hear Helms reiterate his absolute commitment "that I would never cast a political vote." Or to hear him joke: "Harvey, please get it over with," after a group of black kitchen workers briefly drowned out his speech as they dragged their equipment to a truck.

Gantt, 47, in contrast, moves comfortably among feminists, artists, suburban reformers and gays. The election, he argues, "is not about patriotism, it is not about who loves America. It is not about who can wear the flag or scream 'I am more patriotic.' "

More than any other incumbent senator, Helms represents the old South. "He's a Republican version of George Wallace," said Emory University political scientist Merle Black. And like the former Alabama governor, Helms has demonstrated a consistent willingness to use race as a campaign theme.

This history extends from the 1960s when he denounced as "humbug" the civil rights chant of "freedom now" to the warnings in his current direct mail that black civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson "will soon have thousands of Rainbow Coalition 'activists' roaming the streets of virtually every small town."

To broaden his appeal, Gantt has adopted a moderate message and personal style. This strategy has liabilities that worry some of his supporters. "Harvey doesn't have that gut emotional appeal. It's not an 'I'm on your side' liberalism," a Democratic strategist who supports Gantt said.

Depending on turnout, Gantt, who is expected to get solid black support, will need 39 to 41 percent of the white vote to win, according to most estimates. Most polls suggest that target is not out of reach with voters now roughly split between Helms and Gantt and 10 percent undecided.

But in his three previous statewide elections, Helms has repeatedly forced the Democratic Party on the defensive. He has turned the traditional New Deal base of the Democratic Party among white voters on its head, winning larger margins among the textile workers and auto mechanics than in the country club bastions of the privileged.

To counter Helms's strength among working-class whites, campaign strategists say, Gantt must construct a coalition that combines strong black support with solid margins among relatively affluent, well-educated middle-class whites.

Gantt's hopes rest in part on the steady shrinkage in the hard-core base of rural whites that has consistently provided Helms with his winning margins. The socially conservative voters along the back roads of the state are no longer an adequate base on which to construct a statewide campaign.

In each of his earlier contests, Helms proudly defied the strategy of consensus politicians, and this election is no exception. But it has yet to reach the standard set in 1984 when a racial bloodbath erupted on North Carolina's televison airways. Down 20 percentage points at the start of that campaign, Helms broke the lead of former governor James B. Hunt Jr. (D) with ads describing Helms's battles on the Senate floor against making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a holiday, and then asking: "Where do you stand, Jim?"

So far the tone of the 1990 campaign is slightly more moderate. In one Helms commercial, pictures of a woman lying on the ground, apparently beaten and raped, flash on the screen. "The death penalty for rapists who brutally beat their victims?" the announcer asks, and then answers: "Gantt says 'no.' Helms say 'yes.' " In another, the narrator asks: "Should teenage girls be allowed to have abortions without their mothers being informed?" Gantt's picture appears as the narrator replies to his own question: "Harvey Gantt says 'yes, it's a teenage girl's right.' " Then Helms's picture appears: "Jesse Helms says 'no, we can't undermine families.' "

Gantt campaign officials contend that Helms has lost credibility, that the 1990 electorate no longer believes his claims and that it has grown more sophisticated and skeptical of his televised assaults.

Mel Watt, Gantt's campaign manager, argued that the Helms campaign "is a no, no, no, no, no campaign. It's a negative-Gantt, negative-Gantt, negative-Gantt campaign. . . . You've got the backdrop of all that venom six years ago that people simply don't want to be reminded of, and you've got 18 years -- actually it's probably 25 years -- of history with Helms just being an outspoken advocate for division rather than togetherness."

In private, however, there are those close to the Gantt campaign who continue to fear the ability of Helms and his principal strategists -- Carter Wrenn, Tom Ellis and Charles Black -- to exploit the liabilities of the Democratic Party and of liberal orthodoxy.

Helms's ads "are all about the same time, they all tap into a certain value system -- something more than a value system," one Gantt supporter said. "What we struggle with as Democrats is that it is no accident that our commercials are stand-alone, single shots that don't have a common message. The liberal or Democratic dilemma is that culturally we don't have a complete value system to project to people. The closest we come is with privacy and abortion."

There is, however, some evidence suggesting that Helms's protective armor may be rusting. The Gantt campaign has stressed in its television commercials the claim that Helms is anti-education, that Helms voted "12 times against college loans for working families, and even against school lunches and nutrition."

With uncharacteristic defensiveness, the Helms campaign has produced a television ad to specifically rebut the Gantt education charges.

At the same time, the Helms campaign is making a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of the North Carolina press, which over the years has produced an extensive collection of articles and editorials questioning Helms's commitment to widely supported programs protecting the environment, providing health care and Social Security.

On the campaign stump, Helms portrays himself as the target of a liberal newspaper cabal working in secrecy with the Gantt campaign. "The interesting thing about this 1990 campaign is the way the liberal newspapers are so blatant," he says. "They are interested in the election of Harvey Gantt. They are interested in the election of anybody to succeed Jesse Helms."

But, Helms warns, "I'm not going to retreat one inch. . . . If I have to sell my soul to stay in Washington, D.C., let the word go out . . . that price is too high."

In a calculated move to thumb his nose at the press, Helms has hired as his campaign press secretary a former management consultant and yogurt franchise operator with no background in press relations. Questions addressed to the campaign have to be sent in by fax machine, with answers communicated the same way. Helms generally limits campaign appearances -- at least those made known to the press -- to one a week, often on a Saturday night.

While the polls show the race currently a virtual tie, there are factors that suggest that Helms still has the advantage. Black, the Emory University political scientist, suggested that the sustained attacks on Helms by North Carolina newspapers may make some of his supporters reluctant to say they will vote for him.

"Helms is no longer as socially acceptable as he used to be," Black said. But that may have the paradoxical consequence of concealing the real strength he will have on Election Day.