Democrats hear a Dixie melody: Clinton is the party's first candidate since Carter to sway vital voters in the South. John Lichfield reports from Charlotte, North Carolina

IN HER 20 years in the parched grass roots of Democratic politics in the South, Pat Patton has seen her party's presidential candidates come and go - mainly go.

'Now, Mr McGovern, he was a very sweet man. He sent me Christmas cards for 10 years,' she reminisces over Diet Coke and tortilla chips in a bright, dingy store-front in suburban Charlotte (headquarters of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party).

As chairwoman of the party in a pivotal county in a pivotal state, Mrs Patton, 70, is a compelling, if suspect, witness on the direction of this year's pundit-defying presidential campaign. 'We're going to win it for Mr Clinton. No question about it,' she said.

'The whole mood of Charlotte and North Carolina has changed out of recognition from four years ago. Since the Democratic Convention in July, we've seen 670 folks walk through that door and say, 'We mean to work for you.' In the campaign in 1988, with little Mr Dukakis running, we never raised more than 100 volunteers.'

If Bill Clinton can win or narrowly lose Mecklenburg County, a Republican stronghold, he will win North Carolina. If he can win North Carolina, America's 10th largest state, on 3 November, he will win a scattering of other Southern states, something only Jimmy Carter has achieved for the Democrats in the past 24 years. If he can break the post-Vietnam, post-civil rights, Republican neck-lock on the once solidly Democratic South, he will be the next president. But can he win here? National polls are tightening somewhat, but regional and internal party polls suggest that substantial white and solid black support puts Clinton 10 points ahead across the South, and six to eight points ahead in North Carolina, a remarkable feat.

Ted Arrington is politics professor at the University of North Carolina, and a Republican. 'If Bush can get the interest of white Southern voters off their one issue, the economy, and on to Clinton's personal morals, or the commander-in-chief question, or crime or race, Clinton is going to take a beating here. But the Republicans are running out of missiles. They tried family values. They tried Hillary Clinton. They tried taxes. They tried the draft issue. People keep asking me, 'Won't these things work?' I say, 'Sure, a little. They will all work a little.'

'The race will tighten. Races always do. But will it work enough to win North Carolina or re-elect President Bush? Personally, at this stage, I doubt it.'

Thirty miles to the west, in ultra-conservative Gaston County, Sandra Page is puzzling over the strange case of the telephones that do not ring. Mrs Page, county supervisor of elections, recalls the vicious Senate race in North Carolina two years ago between Senator Jesse Helms, bull elephant of unreconstructed conservatism, and Harvey Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte. At the equivalent stage in that race, she says, she had no time to pause for breath. Her desk was swimming in requests for voting registrations and postal ballots. 'This time, honey' - she makes a wide-eyed face and waves her hands - 'nothing. No-thing. I keep wondering what I'm going to do with my time.'

US elections (elections anywhere) are won by mobilising your base vote and snaring the swing vote. Gaston County - a gritty place of old textile mills and new service industries lining the New York-to-Atlanta freeway - is Republican heartland in North Carolina. Traditionally, it returns big Republican majorities of two-to-one, trumping the Democratic majorities generated by the dangerously modern-thinking, hi-tech suburbs of Raleigh-Durham to the north and the black, and residual white, tribal Democrats in the coastal plains to the east.

Mrs Page sums up the county's electoral inactivity (six weeks from polling day, two weeks from close of registrations): 'Bad news for Bush and the Republicans.'

Warren Herman, 70, a retired Republican construction worker in Gaston County, wears a white baseball cap marked 'Rainbow Paints'. He concedes that North Carolina will be 'damn close' this time. He blames the media for making the economy seem worse than it is, and for picking on Mr Bush. 'The media focus on every tiny error of the President's, but ignore Clinton's draft-dodging and womanising. If they would only focus on those issues, Clinton would disappear just like that.' He snaps his fingers.

Mr Herman thinks that Mr Bush will carry North Carolina narrowly, thanks to the military vote in such bases as Fort Bragg and Pope Airforce Base (jointly, one of the world's largest military complexes). But he concedes: 'I don't think Bush is going to carry the majorities in this county which Republicans have in the past.'

In that case, George Bush is in trouble. Consider the strange arithmetic of elections in the South. There is a 20 per cent black electorate in North Carolina, all of which, bar a few votes, will go to Mr Clinton. The Democratic candidate needs only 37.5 per cent of the white vote to win the state (less in other Southern states, a little more in others). With the national Democratic Party associated in the minds of white Southerners, especially white Southern males, with taxation, gun control and kindness to blacks, a string of Northern liberal presidential candidates - Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis - failed to win even one in three white voters in Dixie over the past 24 years.

Ted Arrington believes all that can change, for several reasons: the poor national economy; the comforting Southern-ness of Mr Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore; and the southward population shifts of the Eighties, which have made the endless leafy suburbs of Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte like endless leafy suburbs throughout the US.

David Hoyle, 53, is running as a Democrat for the State Senate for Gaston and neighbouring counties. In past years, he says, the hopes of many local Democrats have been drowned by the dead weight at the 'top of the ticket'. This year, by comparison, Mr Clinton and Mr Gore are like a life-raft.

'This is a conservative state. There's a lot of folks here who regard the Bible as revealed reality. None of that has changed. Many of those folks will still vote for Bush, if they vote at all. What is different this time is that many of the white, blue-collar, lower-income males, people who haven't been with us in years, are ready to vote for Clinton and Gore. Sure, partly it's the economy. They want a change and don't see Bush delivering it.

'But there's more than that. If we had another Northern Democrat running for president with an unpronounceable name or any name ending in a vowel, or one of those hell-fire liberals like (Senator Tom) Harkin, we'd be as badly off as ever. Southern folks feel comfortable with Clinton. He talks like us. He's for the death penalty; against unreasonable gun control; for reform of welfare.'

Even moderate Republicans, such as Mr Arrington, do not dispute this analysis. 'The South has been a Republican presidential bastion, but it is a hollow bastion. Democrats still carry the biggest part of the local races. What this tells you is that we have no parties any more in the US. People feel no overwhelming allegiance to any party. They vote for specific people on specific issues in specific races.

'If you have a presidential race like this one, where the economy is bad and Southern whites feel no particular comfort or cultural affinity with the Republican candidate - just as they didn't when (Gerald) Ford lost in 1976 - and some degree of comfort with the Democratic candidate, as they did when Carter won in 1976, the Republican bastion can crumble into sand.'

With six weeks to go, many questions remain unresolved. Will Ross Perot re-enter the race and, if so, whom does he hurt? Answer: he will not re-enter except to hurt Mr Bush, whom, clearly, he detests. Republican operatives fear he may yet endorse Mr Clinton, in return for the chairmanship of a blue-riband inquiry into the federal deficit.

Will the character issues, notably the Vietnam draft, begin to hurt Mr Clinton? No sign of mortal wounds in North Carolina, as good a place to search for them as any. Several local Democrats, having lost so often, cannot quite believe Mr Clinton will win here. But even a close defeat in North Carolina may indicate a pattern of Democratic victory nationwide.

Pat Patton, sitting under portraits of FDR and JFK, reads history's patterns another way. 'Enthusiasm for Clinton is greater than for Carter in 1976. It's broader. Why, some rednecks like Clinton. Lord knows what they see in him. Maybe it's his saxophone.'

(Photograph omitted)