THE days of the Dixiecrat may be coming to an end.
The retirement of Sam Nunn of Georgia, one of the Senate's most respected Democrats and a leader on defense issues, signals the end of an era for the South.
His decision not to run for reelection in 1996 also deals a heavy blow to the Democratic Party, which is seeing its dream of retaking control of the Senate next year fade.
A more likely question is whether Republicans, who control 53 of 100 seats, will hold a filibuster-proof majority of 60 after the next election. Mr. Nunn is the eighth Democratic senator to bow out of the 1996 election. Only one Republican is not running again.
But for the South, once the backbone of the Democratic Party, Nunn's departure Monday is nothing less than a watershed.
''It's a major change for Georgia politics, for Southern politics, and maybe even national politics,'' says Charles Bullock, political scientist at the University of Georgia, Athens. ''The way he went about his job was emblematic of an approach that used to be very widespread and now is nearing extinction.''
''It really is the end of an era,'' concurs political analyst Charles Cook.
Three other longtime Southern Democratic senators - Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, Howell Heflin of Alabama, and David Pryor of Arkansas - have also announced they will not seek reelection. So Nunn's announcement leaves only Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Charles Robb of Virginia representing conservative Southern Democrats in the Senate.
But Senator Robb is more of a ''national'' conservative and Senator Hollings doesn't evoke the same rural, regional traits that Dixiecrats like Nunn have, Cook says.
Nunn's departure also represents a blow to bipartisanship in an institution where working cooperatively with members of the other party is becoming less and less common. Younger, brasher members of the Senate, such as Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania, tend to come out of the Newt Gingrich school of governance.
Before Nunn's announcement Monday, senators from both parties were trying to persuade the Georgian to run for a fifth term, which he likely would have won. (His approval rating in Georgia was more than 70 percent.) Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, the Senate's only nonagenarian and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the panel Nunn headed when Democrats were in the majority, made a strong plea for him to stay on.
So did another committeeman, Sen. William Cohen of Maine, a moderate Republican. Senator Cohen stresses Nunn's leadership on national security issues, particularly in a post-cold war era when consensus is more difficult to achieve.
But for Nunn, personal concerns outweighed the pleas of colleagues. ''Today I look forward to more freedom, more flexibility,'' he says.
Nunn's departure is only the latest in a stream of Democrats who have left the Senate fold. In the last three years, 17 Democratic senators have retired, resigned, or switched parties. ''This is a stunning hemorrhage,'' says Mr. Cook.
It will be a tough election for the Democrats, but, Cook adds, there are positive signs. The Democrats have a shot at taking both Senate seats in Oregon: Sen. Bob Packwood's, now sitting vacant following his resignation, and Sen. Mark Hatfield's, which will be contested in 1996.
There's a 50-50 chance Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming will retire, says Cook. That's a seat a Democrat could take. In three other seats, strong races are heating up: Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota is either even or behind in polls, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina faces two strong potential foes, and the Democrats could give Sen. John Warner a tough race in Virginia.
Cook's projection, more than a year away from the next election, is that Republicans will not get the 60 seats needed to create a filibuster-proof majority. In fact, some of the GOP moves to slow Medicare spending and cut other popular programs could turn voters against them, he says. The Democrats could conceivably pull close to a 50-50 split in the Senate.
Others, though, predict tough times for the Democrats. ''The [Republican] tide does not look at this point like it's going to turn,'' says Claibourne Darden, an Atlanta pollster. Senators like Nunn ''are the power brokers, the committee chairmen, the ones who have yielded tremendous power who are now sitting in the back of the bus and they're finding out the view in the back of the bus isn't always the same.''