Atlanta — George C. Wallace's candidacy for a fourth term as governor of Alabama offers a kind of national reading on the extent to which Southern politics and Mr. Wallace himself have changed.
Gone are the days of Wallace campaigns that ran along racial lines and his 1963 stand in a door of the University of Alabama, defying federal orders to admit a black student. Southern politicians know well that black votes count, and can spell the difference in a close election.
But it is not simply a matter of vote-calculating; many politicians have a genuine concern for minorities and work to carry out programs on their behalf. The number of black politicians has also been steadily rising.
To win, Wallace needs strong black support. Blacks usually account for about 20 percent of those voting in Alabama.
Some blacks will likely back Wallace as the man who strengthend the junior college system state-wide, thus helping many blacks get higher education. Others are likely to remain skeptical and unsupportive.
Wallace's past segregationist record is ''one of those things indelibly imprinted in the minds of black people,'' says Dwight Burgess, head of the Urban League in Birmingham. Asked if he thinks Wallace has changed, he replies: ''A leopard never changes his spots.''
Still, with the state showing one of the highest levels of unemployment in the nation, any Republican candidate may have a hard time garnering black votes. Yet Wallace will have no easy time merely getting the white votes he needs.
He faces strong opposition not only from other Democrats in the September primary but from an unusually-strong (for Alabama) Republican candidate, Emory Folmar, mayor of Montogomery.
Can Wallace win again, as he did in 1962, 1970 and 1974?
While some polls show he is the most widely-recognized politician in the state, private pollster Ray Evans says he will likely loose. He points out that Republican-style Democratic incumbent governor Fob James (who has not announced whether he will run again) was barely recognized in early polls.
In a two-way race, Wallace and Folmar are almost in a dead heat now, says Mr. Evans. But Wallace may loose a primary runoff to House speaker Joe McCorquodale.
The other leading Democratic candidate is Lt. Gov. George McMillan, who has been planning to run for years and is expected to have strong black support.
''People are looking for a new face,'' Evans told the Monitor. Wallace is still well-respected, he says. ''It's like eating peanut butter; you love it all your life, then one day you say you're tired of it.''
The fact that Wallace is wheel-chair bound, the result of an assasination attempt during one of his presidential campaigns, may work in his favor if voters see him as courageous, says one state politician.
How Wallace really views issues remains a puzzle, even to some who have known him for years. Just before he announced his latest candidacy, a long-time Democratic party activist who is not a supporter said that ''in his (Wallace's) soul he is a new deal populist, old-line Democrat . . . perhaps the most popular demagogue that has come on to the scene.''
But Wallace is an ''enigma,'' he said. ''I don't know what he really believes.''