"Well, looook who it is," screeches one thirtyish woman in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, around midnight. Her girlfriends gather around. "It's John Wo-ner . . . Hello!"

Warner, still energetic after a very long campaign day through rural Virginia, is immediately engulfed by four women, all giggling, asking for autographs and sighing.

"He touched it," gushes one, holding out a slip of paper Warner autographed.

"Won't you come downstairs and have a drink with us?" says another.

"He's so handsome," says a third.

Warner blanches.

"Now, darlings, I think we'd better behave out here," he says. He bolts for the elevator.

John Warner still creates a stir.

Six years ago, when he was first running for the Senate, the main attraction was his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. The crowds were awesome, the press coverage voluminous, the race nip and tuck. John Warner was in a frantic fight for the heart of Virginia.

Many say it was Taylor who won it.

Today, the now-senior senator from Virginia is out there stumping again, this time divorced and on his own, in a lopsided race. The crowds are thinner, the challenge simpler. But one way or the other, the attraction is still there. In a poll released over the weekend, the Richmond Times-Dispatch says he is leading with 62 percent of the projected vote, against Edythe Harrison, a woman who is having difficulty mustering enthusiasm from her own party.

He's the first to say that he has matured and relaxed and to acknowledge that, well, his personal life has lent itself to some rather interesting stories.

" . . . I brought it on myself," he says, mentioning his first wife, heiress Catherine Mellon, as well as Taylor. "You can't live this life style that I have, with two fascinating wives, and not come away without bringing it upon yourself. In a sense, those chapters speak for themselves."

He is 57 now, his hair grayer, his waistline thicker. There is something paternal and accessible about him. Still, the Old Southern formality that has led many to call him pompous remains in evidence. "There's got to be something there because it's a repeated observation," he says. "I try constantly to go the other way. But I've not been totally successful."

There was always a staff member present and another tape recorder going during a recent campaign swing through the state and a long breakfast at his Middleburg retreat. This is his first personal interview in recent years, and he talks like a man who wants to be reflective.

He has been loved by one of the world's richest women, Catherine Mellon, and one of the world's most famous, Elizabeth Taylor. He'll offer that, in different ways, his ambitions were a catalyst in ruining both marriages. "It seems to me in terms of the divorce situation, the career had impact on both," he says.

The irony, he well knows, is that his best career moves may very well have been the women he chose to marry.

"I think that to be a compliment in a sense," he says. "They're actually fine women. They both did a lot to help me. I think a wife is a very important part of an election process."

Warner is described as everything from hard-working to dumb, from pompous to one of the nicest guys on this side of the Blue Ridge mountains. Senate colleagues say he gives his job his all, his constituents seem to love him, and Washington, being what it is, has woven a fabric of his character as colorful and varied as the fall landscape surrounding his farm.

Take his picture with occasional date Barbara Walters at a fancy party, but don't ask about his three children.

Listen to him talk about his new-found "internal security" in one breath; in the next, he tries to leave the impression he attended the prestigious St. Albans School. Only when pressed does he acknowledge that "in and out of St. Albans" really means one summer session there, and four years at Woodrow Wilson High School, from which he graduated.

He is considered generous with his time and money. He visits his 95-year-old mother daily and surprised his squash partner, Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), with a new pair of sneakers because the old ones looked tattered. Yet, there is also a perception among some that he is a penny-watcher who acquired the bulk of his wealth through a life-income trust given to him early in his marriage to Mellon, and then from a substantial divorce settlement with her.

John Warner decided early on that he would pay the price of those snide comments and innuendoes, the charges of "social climbing" and political posturing. Living under the scrutiny of social critics was easier than living without the trappings of wealth and position.

Who would ever have thought that the journey of a Depression-era youth who interrupted high school to join the Navy would end up this way, that he would even manage to fulfill his mother's dream of him becoming secretary of the Navy along the way? "That was my idea that he become secretary of the Navy," she says. "I just loved the Navy. Isn't it funny?"

The death of his physician father at age 18 left him the family's man and left the family to tough it out, shuttling between his mother's small Washington apartment and his uncle's comfortable Cleveland Park home. He bought and sold used cars and got through Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia Law School, where he drank tea and traded notes with the sons of Virginia's gentry.

Of the well-worn yarn that has Warner carefully weighing the social backgrounds and investment portfolios of those he dated while at Washington and Lee, he says succinctly:

"B.S.! That's B.S."

Warner knows that some people think he is pompous and not bright. He says that perception is partly attributable to his colorful life, but that its true genesis was in the public criticisms of Elmo Zumwalt, with whom he served in the late '60s and early '70s when he was secretary of the Navy and Zumwalt was chief of naval operations.

Zumwalt, in his book "On Watch," wrote:

"John Warner had been unhelpful to me in just about every way a Secretary of the Navy could be unhelpful to the Chief of Naval Operations: in handling the racial issues; in advancing promising young officers; in dealing with contractors; in fighting for an adequate budget . . . I had long since adopted the policy of not relying on his assistance in any serious enterprise . . . Though he favored integration, he had urged me a number of times to go slowly with it."

The most damaging charge that Zumwalt has made had to do with naval integration. Zumwalt charged, both in his book and in other interviews, that Warner thwarted his efforts to integrate the Navy swiftly. Warner denies this, but acknowledges that he thought the process should be slower.

"The unfortunate situation is that Admiral Zumwalt and I had different philosophical goals and speed in which you could achieve those goals," he says. "I tried to be sensitive and let individuals pace themselves rather the system try and establish their pace . . . For reasons best known to him, he chose to go out publicly and criticize me in a manner that no other secretary has been criticized by a military officer . . . That's where it started."

Warner set about trying to change his image when he came to the Senate. As much as Elizabeth Taylor was an asset to Warner during the campaign, that's how much of a liability she was once he was elected.

"Married to Elizabeth? Of course, you'd be vulnerable. Makes good copy," he says.

As soon as he was elected, he cut off all feature press interviews, refused to travel abroad, and insisted on making every roll-call vote, however late or inconsequential.

So frustrating did it get for Taylor, that after two years of having her plans disturbed because of these votes, she became determined to break his perfect record. She enlisted the help of Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, and when Warner was in New York for Taylor's opening in "The Little Foxes," as part of a conspiracy with Taylor, Baker called a vote.

Nonetheless, Warner's working habits prevailed, and Taylor's loneliness grew.

On another occasion, Warner failed to come home to celebrate Taylor's birthday because of a Senate session. In tears, she called Dominique D'Ermo, owner of the prestigious downtown French restaurant.

"We had dinner together," says Dominique. "He was working late that night and she called me. She was very depressed because she was all alone with a bodyguard downstairs. It is not easy for someone like Elizabeth Taylor to be alone. She was lonely and unhappy. I came over with some wine and good steaks. I cheered her up a little."

Says Warner: "It was a distressing split-up for both of us generated by careers."

Warner says the two are good friends today.

"There's so much about her that is really not known," he says.

"Elizabeth is one who loved to fully share life with her person," says Warner. "You get into the Senate and lose control of the hours and the regularity, and you get tremendously involved in the pressures of that office. She opted for her own career and all of a sudden the fork in the road came.

"It is not easy for a woman to be married to -- any women in my judgment -- to be married to a member of Congress."

Everywhere he goes, he hears the echoes of a campaign past:

"He used to be married to Liz Taylor!"

"Are they finally divorced?"

"Will they ever get back together?"

With or without Liz, John Warner's sexy image is still intact. They always ask about her, but they are fascinated by him. One of his aides says Warner feels he can't even have a casual date without being linked romantically with the woman.

"Absolutely Not! No! No! Never!" he says when asked if he really asked Barabara Howar to be his wife. "And not the other one either -- Barabara Walters!"

Senate colleagues say women call out from their cars when Warner walks by.

Warner doesn't want to encourage this image. He dismisses it by saying he just has a special kind of "chemistry."

"People just see it in your eyes," he says, "and they know they can come up to you."

In his home state of Virginia Warner has translated this quality (although his mother insists he does better with "the men") and other factors into political strength. For months, Democrats fumbled around trying to find a strong candidate to loosen his grip on the seat. Virginia Gov. Charles Robb in particular sought to find a competitive candidate to take on Warner, while Democratic polls were showing that only Robb himself could beat him.

In what promises to be a strong Reagan year in Virginia, the analysts agree that Warner has few negatives.

For one, prospective challengers knew he had a huge war chest: $2 million.

Secondly, he is a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and fairly well mirrors Virginia's conservative electorate. Virginia gets 7 percent of the total defense budget, which comes out to roughly $12 billion a year, and Warner's pro-defense posture can only help the state economically.

He was also one of the primary architects of a major military benefits measure in 1980. The bill, which increased allowances and bonuses for military personnel, not only enhanced his standing among the 100,000 enlisted service men and women who may vote in Virginia, but also may have scored him points with the retail community which directly benefited from the increase in discretionary income into the local economy.

Harrison has attempted to turn Warner's relationship with the military establishment into a political liability. She notes that Warner has received significant campaign contributions from defense industry political action comittees, and she has called upon him to return the money from those industries that have reportedly overcharged the government.

She has also criticized his civil rights record and his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.

As yet, there is no evidence that these issues have eroded Warner's political base.

"Warner's biggest plus this year is the fact that he didn't live up to his reputation," says Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia, and political analyst with Democratic leanings. "He was expected to be a dilettante and show horse in the Senate, and he's been a workhorse. He's done well and it seems even better because expectations were so low."

Says someone who worked closely with Warner's 1978 Democratic opponent, Andrew Miller: "If you're asking me if I'm going to vote for him, the answer is: of course not. If you're asking me if he's done a good job, the answer is yes."

John Warner's Middleburg estate tells his life story. Gone are his campaign demeanor and Capitol Hill posturing, as he cooks breakfast in a country kitchen that he designed. Here he likes to think of himself as just a farmer overseeing his rolling acres. All 900 acres, which are bordered on one side by Wexford, the house John and Jacqueline Kennedy built, and on the other by Jack Kent Cooke's land.

It is this "farm" that he and Catherine Mellon bought in the late '50s as newlyweds, and the place to which he returned to reconstruct his life after their divorce in 1973.

It is where he married Elizabeth Taylor in 1976 and brought her to live, the place she referred to when she said often during those years that all she wanted to be was a farmer's wife. From here he launched his first Senate campaign.

The walls tell the rest: photos of his children, Mary, 26, Virginia, 25, and John IV, 22; himself with Andrei Gromyko in Moscow; and plaques and photos of his days as assistant secretary of the Navy and secretary of the Navy.

In the center of this gallery is one empty space, where once hung the picture of him and Taylor exchanging their marriage vows. It is now tucked behind an antique bureau.

"Elizabeth loved it out here," he says. "She was a real animal person. She collected all kinds of animals. She liked it very much."

It is 9 a.m. on a wonderfully misty, overcast fall day, the kind of weather that frizzes the hair and heightens the fiery colors of the foliage. Warner, in khakis and a tan flannel shirt, is burning the potatoes. The kitchen is classic country clutter, with well-worn copper pots, and a large collection of brown crockery.

(He collects everything and anything. Traveling with Warner through Virgina is like taking a kid through F.A.O. Schwarz on Christmas Eve. During one day he buys: one tea towel, one piece of sand paper, one car seat, one hammer, one leather hole-punch, one butter paddle. "I never did figure out what he did with that bassinet he bought on the last trip," says an aide.)

Breakfast is eggs, fresh fried tomatoes and potatoes from the farm, and sausage.

"I had a birthday recently," he says, "and the staff gave me this terrific pig."

"Oh, is that . . . ?" says an aide, gulping. "The last time I saw that sausage it was wearing a Redskins red sweatshirt."

He says his kitchen is his domain and delights in giving a visitor a tour of his possessions. "I don't want anyone messing with my pots and pans. My kitchen is off-limits."

On one wall in fresh ink is a scrawled recipe for salad dressing, which is punctuated by illegible initials. "Well," he says, "if a guest comes out and the dressing is particularly good, I ask them to write it there on the wall."

And whose initials are they?

"Oh," he says. "I never give out initials."

His favorite room is a den, dark and cozy, the only soft touch being the brown floral couch Catherine Mellon chose. "Fire away," he says playfully, after breakfast, fully prepared to answer questions about Taylor. But he is reluctant to concede that her fame afforded him the narrow 4,721-vote victory in 1978.

"Well, she was a hard-working campaigner, and then she had a series of mishaps, the most serious being the chicken bone. You're familiar with that?" he asks.

Everyone is familar with that.

The campaign became known as the Perils of Elizabeth: The now famous fried-chicken bone that sent her in an ambulance to the hospital, the splinter in her eye, a broken finger, her bad back.

"Therefore," he says, "for the latter part of the campaign she was simply unable to take an active role . . . Now I do not say this in any way to denigate her participation . . . The woman was out. She was incapacitated because of really saddening experiences."

The Taylor-Warner romance has been, of course, well documented. He was asked to escort her to an embassy party in 1976. They were married within the year and starting on the campaign trail within days. Everywhere she went, the crowds devoured them and the campaign dollars sustained them. But Warner was not the first choice of Virginia's Republican Party, which gave the nomination to Richmond lawyer Richard Obenshain at the party's June convention. Obenshain was killed the crash of a private plane in August, and John and Liz were on the road again.

The race between Warner and Democrat Andrew Miller was exhausting. They ran neck and neck all through the fall.

To this day many Democrats believe that those last votes were for Elizabeth Taylor, the star.

"Much has been written, much has been said about that election," he says like man who has a point to make, "but I'm as convinced now as I was then, that despite the excitement, much of it generated by Elizabeth, when those people pulled the lever in the ballot box, the excitement and memories of it had long since faded and they pulled that lever solely on the basis of which individual would vote on policies that would most nearly reflect their individual goals . . . It's almost deprecating to the voters to say they voted because of Elizabeth."

Warner is very protective of his family, which now is made up of his three children and his mother, Martha Warner, whom he refers to as "Granny." During a recent visit to his mother's Georgetown nursing home with his oldest daughter Mary, he advised a reporter to ask any questions of his daughter at this time -- in front of his mother, a Senate aide and still another tape recorder.

He told his mother, however, to feel free to speak her mind. Martha Warner, spunky at 95, did.

Did she ever campaign for her son? she was asked.

"Oh no, no, I didn't," she says. "I don't think he wanted women to campaign for him. I think he thought that men would do it better."

Warner cringes.

"Now Grandmother," he says. "you recall that you came over when I announced my candidacy in Alexandria. Remember?"

She remembered. A little later, she was asked if she thought her son has been a good senator.

"They say so," she says. "The men do."

"You're going to sink me!" pipes up Warner. "I don't have a gender gap -- until this moment."

"Well," she says undaunted by her son's uneasiness, "I hope the men all vote for John."

Now he is worrying.

"This is the first time I've ever heard you say you thought only the men are going to vote for me," he says in good humor. "The women are going to vote for me."

"Yes," she says, "but you have the majority of the men. Isn't that right?"

"Well," he says, "I don't know. We'll have to wait for election day."

"I think there's no question about that," she says.

He is laughing nervously.

"In all the time we have talked you have never told me anything like this," he says. "I have worked hard on behalf of women. You know that."

"We don't know yet how far you've gotten," she says. "That remains to be seen. But we do know that you stand well with men."

"I guess you've made that point," he says.

On the way out of the nursing home, Warner is asked if there is anything in his life he wished had turned out differently. He says softly, out of earshot of his daughter: "On the personal side, I was deeply saddened when the first marriage broke up . . . never like to see a family split up."

And then a little louder and crisper, he adds: "But the career? No, I have no regrets. I think it's been everything I ever hoped for."