Hilton Head, S.C. — Florida's Democratic Gov. Bob Graham sipped a glass of orange juice and wrote on a small note pad as he sat listening in sportshirt and slacks. Texas Republican Gov. William P. Clements Jr. wore a sport jacket and took no notes.
But sportshirt or sportcoat - Democrat or Republican - Southern governors at their annual meeting here shared one political observation: President Reagan remains very popular in the South, despite serious economic problems in many of the Southern states.
Even Southerners not happy with President Reagan's economic policies concede there is still strong support for him personally, these governors explain.
Why do people make such a distinction? Because, says North Carolina Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., ''He's a nice fellow.''
What impact is the President's popularity likely to have on this fall's election of the full House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and many of the nation's governors and other state officials?
On this, too, there were similar replies from governors of both parties. In informal interviews between formal meetings, most predicted the President's popularity is likely to have little effect on the coming elections.
The economy is likely to have a greater impact,they said. But they also find other reasons why Mr. Reagan's popularity is not likely to sway voters this fall.
Although Mr. Reagan is ''very popular'' in Florida, he will have little effect on the election because Florida voters tend to dissociate state politics from national politics, says Governor Graham, who is running for reelection.
Since Reagan's name will not be at the top of the ballot in this, an off-year nonpresidential election, the President's strength in Oklahoma - where he remains ''popular'' - will have little impact on the fall election, says the state's Democratic governor, George Nigh, who is also seeking reelection.
Tennessee Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander agrees. The President's ''strong reservoir'' of support in Tennessee, ''won't help Republicans,'' says Governor Alexander also up for reelection. Voters don't expect the same things from a president as they do from a governor, he says. For example, he explains, ''Most people understand a governor can't end a recession.''
So what will be the likely effect of the economy on the elections? On this point the unrehearsed opinions among the southern governors splits wider than the north-south points on a compass.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, Southern Democratic governors are more critical in their rating of the economy and tie its performance directly back to the President. In soft but unhesitant tones, they insist that as the nation's economic screws have been tightened, many people have begun to hurt.
''If the cuts go deeper, we will have serious human needs,'' says Mississippi Gov. William Winter, a Democrat limited by his state's constitution to one term. This condition, say governors Winter and Graham, will help Democrats.
Federal cutbacks have ''hit those who can least afford it,'' Winter says. ''There had to be a leveling out (of federal expenditures) but they (the Reagan administration) tried to do it too quickly.''
North Carolina Governor Hunt laments the federal cuts in highways, water and sewer, and skilled training programs - ''the very programs helping us with balanced growth.
''Finally we were reaching out to those hard-core problem areas and those are the ones being cut the most,'' he says.
But from three states with relatively strong economies backed by oil and natural gas - Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma - comes a less harsh assessment, one more favorable to the President.
Texas Governor Clements, says his economists assure him the national economy hit its low point two months ago. He praises President Reagan for helping bring down inflation and the prime interest rate from where they were when President Carter left office. Reagan is on the right track, he says.