Americans who have little doubt about the outcome of the presidential election may still have reason to stay up late watching ballot returns on the night of Nov. 6.
The most publicized Senate campaign in history, a $20 million extravaganza in North Carolina, is reaching its close with no clear favorite.
Billed as the battle of the Titans, the contest pits Sen. Jesse Helms, national symbol of the New Right movement and arch foe of abortion, against two-term Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt, the standard-bearer for the progressive New South.
The Republican incumbent, whose popularity had dipped a year ago, has fought back with the aid of $13 million spent largely on television advertisements criticizing the governor for being prone to raise taxes; tied to liberal politicians ranging from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale; and, most of all, apt to switch positions on issues.
''Nineteen months of negative ads . . . took their toll,'' says State Sen. Helen Marvin, a Hunt campaign official, who charges that the Helms ads distorted the facts, but that the governor did not rebut the barrage of ads until recently because he wanted to save his money for late in the campaign.
In Governor Hunt's rejoinders, he has attacked Helms for supporting a right-wing Salvadorean leader linked to death squads in that country. He charges that the senator has been more absorbed in the New Right agenda, including fighting abortion and bringing organized prayers into schools, than in North Carolina.
Hunt reminds voters of his list of accomplishments, ranging from putting kindergartens into the schools to luring foreign businesses and high technology companies into his state. He has increased the number of black judges, who numbered one or two in the state before his tenure, to 22.
For some North Carolinians, that record of progressive achievements is reason enough to support Hunt. Rita Dixon, a Gastonia-area realtor, says she supports Hunt for one main reason: his efforts to ''bringing business to North Carolina.''
But for others, the choice is based less on hard-nosed practicalities and more on whether they approve of the conservative Senator Helms. He filibustered the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the face of overwhelming opposition, and he alone in the Senate voted against supporting Britain in its battle over the Falkland Islands.
That kind of feistiness, which has earned him the title of ''Senator No'' elsewhere, has won him friends and foes in North Carolina.
''Jesse Helms is going to tell you how he stands,'' says an approving Joe Edwards, an insurance salesman in Burlington, as he awaits the arrival of the candidate for a rally. That view is echoed by many Helms backers in a state where independence is deeply admired.
But an airline cargo supervisor from the surburbs of Charlotte has reacted has the opposite conclusion.
''I'll vote for anybody who runs against Helms,'' says Lewis Yancey. ''I feel uneasy around him.''
Pollsters find the race almost even as it goes into the final days of TV ad wars, charges, and countercharges. The public is clearly tired of having TV programs interrupted by the senatorial mudslinging. One undecided voter in Burlington quipped that he will vote against the man responsible for the last negative ad he sees.
Last of six pages on regional contests in the Nov. 6 election. Previous pages appeared Sept. 6 and 20, Oct. 11, 23, and 26.