For all the attention they are receiving, the upcomming Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary will select a total of only 80 of the nearly 4,000 delegates to the Democratic presidential nominating convention.
But about 600 delegates will be chosen on Super Tuesday, March 13, nearly half of them in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
March 13 is likely to be a day of winnowing. Those who have not made a good showing either up North or down South will have to face the question: If not yet , then when? So the Southern primaries are crucial.
That means the Southern voters are crucial. But who are they? And what kind of attitudes and concerns are they likely to bring into the voting booths next month? How has the South's history shaped their thinking?
Interviews here as well as in a poor, rural Alabama county and in the state's largest city, Birmingham, indicate that as presidential candidates dash in and out of this state, they would do well to bring along a history book and an eraser - for erasing some, but not all, stereotypes of this Deep South state.
* At the top of a flight of marble steps leading up to the State Capitol here stands a tall statue of Jefferson Davis. Although Mississippi was his home, it was here in 1861 that he was elected president of the provisional government of the new Confederate States of America. But while women in the southern part of the state were busy stitching silken Confederate flags, many of the young men from Alabama's northern hill country, where there were few slaves, were refusing to fight and instead sought neutrality.
And Alabamians who used to search for their family roots among the wealthy plantation owners of Virginia more often found them among poor families with dirt yards in the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee, or North Carolina.
That historical snapshot helps explain the populist-to-liberal streak that winds in and out of the continuing deep conservatism in Alabama.
* One block down the street from the Capitol is a small red-brick church. In 1955, the church's young black pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., helped organize a boycott of local buses to protest the blacks-to-the-rear rules of the bus service.
Joe Reed, an influential black lobbyist and political activist, has his office on the same block as the church. He has decided not to endorse black Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson but did support (although not in the primary) the successful reelection in 1982 of George C. Wallace, the one-time segregation leader.
* Only about 20 percent of the voters in Alabama identify themselves in polls as Republicans. But Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and, by some 17,000 votes, Ronald Reagan have all carried the state.
Alabama has one Democratic US senator (Howell T. Heflin) and one Republican (Jeremiah Denton). Two of the state's seven congressmen are Republicans. And there is a small but apparently growing number of Republicans in the Legislature.
Larry Dixon, a state senator from Montgomery, is one. He switched last year from the Democratic Party at a time of statewide redistricting, aware that he had lost the support of key Democratic voter groups. But he won easily as a Republican and now says he should have switched years ago.
''I had the mind-set (that) you have to be a Democrat to win.'' He quickly identifies himself as a Reagan Republican.
President Reagan is considered to have a good chance of carrying the state again, in a race against Walter Mondale, who won the endorsement from Joe Reed's black political organization, the Alabama Democratic Conference. John Glenn might be doing better, and hopes to pull ahead in the primary race with the help of television ads just beginning. But some people who like Senator Glenn like President Reagan better, Alabama pollster Natalie Davis says. And there are many Democrats who vote Republican for president and Democratic for lower offices, records show. Republicans can vote in the Democratic primary, and vice versa.
The state's steel mills and auto-related factories make Alabama economically more akin to the Northeast than, say, to Mississippi. Organized labor is an important factor in the state.
All this helps show what a kaleidoscope Alabama politics presents to anyone trying to win elections here. It shows what Alabama historian Don Dodd calls ''the multifaceted nature of the South.''
And he cites examples of how the past influences the present. The ''legacy'' of racism is still quite visible, he says, on the part of some blacks as well as whites. And a degree of ''double standards'' for women - an underestimation of their ability - continues, he says.
''Alabama is not totally conservative or totally liberal,'' says Anne Permaloff, an associate political-science professor at Auburn University's Montgomery campus.
''You get everthing from the most die-hard reactionary racists in the world . . . to liberals,'' says her husband, Carl Grafton, a political-science professor on the same campus.
And this wide variety of political feelings may be found not only within the same region of the state, but in the same person, he says. Someone may be ''an extreme economic liberal but a civil-liberties conservative,'' he says.
Overlying all this is the presence of one man in the governorship for the better part of the past two decades: George Wallace, now in his fourth, though not consecutive, term as governor, made a fairly liberal start in public life. But when he was first elected governor in 1962, he promised at his inauguration to enforce ''segregation now - segregation tomorrow - segregation forever.'' Yet in 1982, he eagerly sought - and obtained - crucial black support.
Clearly the increase in numbers of black registered voters, mostly after the legislation of the 1960s, has given blacks considerable political clout in Alabama and across the South.
But has Governor Wallace really changed his thinking, or just his tactics? Just how much political clout do blacks in Alabama have today.
And what is life like, politically and otherwise, in the 40 percent of the state that is rural? How much of the old South survives in those areas? These questions will be covered in the next articles of this series.
Next: Courthouse politics in one of the nation's poorest counties.