RALEIGH, N.C., NOV. 3 -- Tim Plott, a college student here, shook his head when asked how he could support a politician whose career was rooted in the angry southern white reaction to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"That was back in 1967, 1968," he said. "I was born in 1969. But if you are talking about the recent civil rights bill, the quota bill, hey, I am all for Jesse on that."

Down in Wilmington, a 20-year-old waitress said, "My parents are big Jesse Helms supporters, but I just don't know. It may sound funny, but I am a believer in the right to have an abortion."

As Helms, the three-term Republican senator, and former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt (D) go down to the wire in one of the closest, nastiest and possibly most significant of the 1990 campaigns, a key segment of the electorate -- young voters -- is approaching the Senate contest with little apparent understanding or sympathy for the powerful forces that shaped the two candidates.

The contest is a titanic struggle between a black liberal who has revived the spirits of a beleaguered North Carolina Democratic Party and a founding father of the "new right" conservative revolution that was born in the wake of the presidential campaigns of George C. Wallace and his appeal to white, working-class discontent with the civil rights, abortion-rights and gay rights movements.

For growing legions of voters like Plott, there is no memory of the 1960 sit-ins in nearby Greensboro, of the riots of Watts, Detroit and other cities from 1965 to 1968 or of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decison that legalized abortion in 1973. These events profoundly shaped the consciousness of voters less than a generation older who can recall Gantt's role as the student who integrated Clemson University in 1963 and Helms's acting as a lightning rod to capture the explosive power of white anger at the new liberal agenda of the Democratic Party.

While Helms's message that "we are in danger of letting go of the fundamental principles of this county" still evokes powerful emotions among older, socially conservative textile and furniture-manufacturing workers of this state -- the so-called "Jessecrats" who formed the core of his base -- for many of the sons and daughters of those same voters Helms's warnings of a coming Armageddon are irrelevant if not laughable.

These young voters work in places like the American Airlines computerized reservations center in suburban Raleigh and the new IBM facilities in Charlotte. They live in suburban town houses and apartment buildings that flank the Interstate 85 corridor that runs through the center of the state. They can be found shopping, eating and drinking in places like the Crabtree Valley and North Hills malls. For large numbers of them, Helms's moral strictures represent a threat to a way of life. "If one of my friends said they were going to support Jesse Helms, they would get laughed out of the party," Jim Johnson, a computer software specialist said outside a town house near booming High Point.

The gulf between many of these younger voters, who may not turn out in high percentages but whose votes could be critical, and the candidates is one of a number of factors that have turned this intensely ideological contest into a war of competing symbols designed to transcend generational and demographic differences.

In developing strategies to reach the magic 50.1 percent of the vote on Election Day, both Helms and Gantt have been been forced to constrict their appeals to the electorate.

The 47-year-old Gantt, for example, has been unable to capitalize on the vulnerablity of the Republican Party to charges that it is the party of the rich. Needing to develop and nurture a base of support among whites dominated by well-educated professionals, Gantt has turned to such issues as the environment, abortion rights and education rather than tax fairness.

The danger in having a black liberal such as Gantt raise the tax-fairness issue, a Gantt strategist said, is that "Harvey would not be seen as a populist, but as someone trying 'to tax us for them.' " The result is that Gantt has not attempted to challenge Helms's hard-core base of support among white, working-class voters, making the Gantt coalition the opposite of the populist Democratic coalition first built in the New Deal period.

While a restoration of backing among less well-off whites appears to be within the grasp of Democrats nationally after President Bush bobbed and weaved all over the ideological map on the tax issue, here in North Carolina Gantt leads among whites only in professional occupations, 49 to 41 percent. The ratio shifts completely in Helms's favor among whites in clerical jobs, 69 to 19 percent, and is almost as strong for Helms among blue-collar workers, 57 to 36 percent, according to a Hickman-Maslin poll for the National Abortion Rights Action League.

For Helms, this election has revealed a central weakness in the wing of conservatism he leads. In direct contrast to the efforts of such younger leaders of the right as Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), White House aide James Pinkerton, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Heritage Foundation policy specialist Stuart Butler to develop a post-Reagan conservative agenda dealing with issues as diverse as poverty and education, the Helms campaign has offered little in the way of a constructive agenda.

Instead, the Helms drive is based almost entirely on the manipulation of two issues viewed by many voters as threatening, negative symbols: gay rights and racial quotas.

At the core of the Helms attack has been the charge that a partnership that included Gantt made use of a Federal Communications Commission racial preference program to obtain a television license that the group later sold for a large, but undisclosed profit.

In fact, the racial preference program played no part in the FCC's final decision, according to William Johnson, deputy administrator of the mass media division. Johnson said all qualified competitors to the Gantt group dropped out, and minority participation is a factor only in competitive decisions. Before the competitors dropped out, however, the Gantt partnership, Piedmont Crescent Broadcasting Co., asserted to the FCC that it would bring "a wealth of area familiarity, civic involvement, prior broadcast experience and minority participation," according to a detailed account of the dispute in the Charlotte Observer.

It is an unnoticed irony of the campaign that during the same mid-1980s period when the Gantt partnership was seeking the television license, key architects of the Helms campaign -- Carter Wrenn and Thomas Ellis -- were advising two Hispanic-American women who were seeking a Raleigh FM radio license to use the same FCC racial preference rules that Gantt has been accused of exploiting.

"They were going to apply as minority owners. . . . They were fully intending to do that," said David M. Hunsaker, a McLean, Va., lawyer who represented Olga V. Castellanos, who is Cuban-American, and Sara J. Estrada, who is Argentinian-American, in the original application, which has not been resolved. "And since they were women, they would get a double whammy." Castellanos is the mother of Alex Castellanos, a Helms media adviser who helped put together television commercials attacking Gantt on the quotas issue.

Charles Black, a spokesman for Ellis and Wrenn, said the two men "knew about {the application}, they talked to the women about it," and actively encouraged their effort as part of a larger plan to set up a network of conservative radio stations. Unlike Gantt and the television station, neither Ellis nor Wrenn had a financial interest in the radio station license application, Black said.

These subtle issues have not, however, emerged as factors in the Senate contest which, according to numerous polls, is virtually even, with the outcome likely to be dependent on turnout patterns.