The rest of the nation may be settling down for that delicious pause after elections, but in Virginia, they are just getting down to political business. This is an election year there, and the odds are that two unusually amiable young men, Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb and Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, will fight a multimillion dollar, state-of-the-art campaign for governor.

Not too long ago, of course, Virginians would have considered the race between Democrat Robb and Republican Coleman as the real political business, with the recent national election just a distant and noisy distraction. But things have changed, and if the monstrous metal statue of Harry Byrd Sr. that disfigures Richmond's Capitol Square were to come to life, he would be amazed. His moonlight-and-magnolia kingdom -- which political scientist V. O. Key once dubbed "a political museum piece" -- has, in the last eight years, decisively rejoined the Union. And not only that: Virginia has, by a mysterious gooney-bird migration, leapt directly from the nation's past into its future -- from the twilight land of courthouse politics to the bland new world of computers, direct mail and media campaigns.

"We have been for 10 years where the country is now," says Judy Peachee, a veteran GOP campaign hand who is now an aide to U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va). "It's like New York fashions -- it takes them 10 years to reach Richmond. In politics, it's the other way around."

For most of this century, the Virginia Democratic party was a comfortable, rural-based machine which proudly maintained a chilly distance from its national stepchild. The Virginia Republican party was a tiny group of apologetically progressive mountaineers. Candidates won or lost by wooing the rural courthouse crowd and by visiting hundreds of country stores, church socials and ham feasts.

All that is gone, vanished in the winds of the '70s. In its place is an emerging system that closely resembles the national two-party system -- with the Republicans firmly in command. After election 1980, which seems to portend a period of Republican dominance in the nation, an observer curious about the next few years could do worse than look south of the Potomac.

"It isn't that Virginia has caught up to the nation," says Jack Gravely, executive director of the state NAACP. "It's that the rest of the nation caught up to Virginia on election day."

Eight years ago, Virginia was a chalk garden of political grotesques -- the upstart populism of former Lt. Gov. Henry Howell, the suave menace of former Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr., the aggressive stupidity of former Sen. William L. Scott. Today, these powerful personalities are all but forgotten.

The two men who will dominate 1981 are relative newcomers to politics. The key battlegrounds are not rural crossroads, but the wealthy suburbs around Washington, Richmond and Norfolk. And the dominant organization is not the once-proud Byrd machine, but a vibrant, sophisticated, ultra-conservative Republican party that was only a dream a decade ago.

The story begins with the rise of a lawyer named Richard D. Obenshain. He looked like a Pentecostal preacher, and his voice had the flat mountain twang of his native Abingdon, Va.; but he had a brilliant political mind and a cause -- the Republicanism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan -- that consumed his every waking thought.

By 1972, he had seized control of the state party and had begun his life's work as Moses of the Virginia GOP.

He hired a professional staff and began working with computerized voter lists and direct mail technology. He mastermined the crude but effective media campaign that elected an obscure congressman, William L. Scott, to the U.S. Senate. At the same time he conducted the negotiations -- only slightly less complex than the Paris peace talks -- that brought Mills E. Godwin Jr., a Byrd Democrat and former governor, into the GOP for an unprecedented second run at the governorship.

Obenshain recruited Godwin because the former governor's name recognition and conservative credentials gave him a chance to turn back the exuberant populist challenge of Lt. Gov. Henry Howell. The move seemed to represent a merger between the old Byrd machine and the embryonic GOP. But the Republicans had no intention of giving up control of their party; and Obenshain's troops elected Godwin almost in spite of himself.

The former governor at first set a relaxed, courthouse-style campaign pace. As a result, recalls political consultant Edward DeBolt, he tumbled from a six-point lead in early polls to a 12-point deficit in the early fall of 1973. "We never could make him believe that [the poll result] was anything but an aberration of those 600 people," DeBolt recalls wryly.

But party operatives designed an intensive direct-mail blitz, a television campaign and a powerhouse of telephone banks. These techniques -- new to Virginia gubernatorial politics -- elected Godwin by a scant 14,000 votes. tThrough Godwin's somnolent reign as governor, Obenshain's party-building work went on.

"We started building a bank of Republican voters," Peachee recalls. "After 1973 we collected the data from our phone banks and tried to find a use for it. The easiest way to start that was with a computer. By 1976, the information we had collected paid off. We turned out our vote."

Virginia was the only state of the Old South to reject Jimmy Carter in 1976. While the Republicans had been arming themselves, the Democrats had been collapsing like an underdone souffle. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. had bolted the party in 1970 and had run as an independent. On the other side of the political fence. Howell did the same in 1971. Though he later rejoined, Howell says today, "I never wasted time on the party organization." During most of the '70s, the state Democratic party had one full-time staffer and a budget of less than $100,000 -- while the Republicans were surpassing $400,000.

In 1977 the difference told, ending Howell's flamboyant career with a 150,000-vote landslide. The winner was not a Byrd retread, but a GOP native son, John N. Dalton.

The governor has the charisma of non-dairy creamer. But he has a gift and enthusiasm for the trenchwork of party politics -- the phone-calling, door-knocking and envelope-stuffing -- that can make the difference between victory and defeat. In 1977 he raised $2 million -- most of it from corporate and financial leaders who cluster around Richmond's Main Street.

His campaign sent out 2 million pieces of mail, flooded radio and TV and recruited an army of precinct workers to man telephones and polling places. Though he started as a 15-point underdog, Dalton coasted to victory. p

As governor, Dalton has been resolutely tight-fisted (since Reagan's election, for example, he has vowed to cut Medicare benefits by $30 million and has refused $1 million a year in federal aid to the mentally disabled because of requirements that state money be spent). He has been grudging, at best, in his response to demands for increased minority hiring and aid to the state's cities. But as a party builder, he has been superb.

Early in his term, he negotiated a settlement of a messy squabble between the state and the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare over minority hiring and admissions at the state's colleges.

His conservative supporters -- who longed for the old days of gauntlets flung at the feet of federal race-mixing orders -- criticized him (and his attorney general, Marshall Coleman).But the deal has paid off. It moved the party away from Old South racial intransigence into a posture that stresses economics instead of race. The effect may be the same, but the emotional content is far different -- and Dalton's conservatism is more palatable to the suburbanites who increasingly form the party's base.

Dalton's second shining hour came in a moment of tragedy. In 1978, to universal relief, William Scott announced his retirement. Richard Obenshain won the party nomination to succeed him -- but his campaign ended on Aug. 2, 1978, when a light plane carrying Obenshain from a rally in Winchester crashed near the Henrico Airport, killing all on board.

Republicans were devastated by the loss of their leader, who was admired even by many who did not share his views. Barely 90 days remained until the general election, for which the Democrats had fielded their best-known candidate, former attorney general Andrew P. Miller. But Dalton rallied the troops. He brushed aside party opposition to ensure the nomination of John Warner, former secretary of the navy, who had been Obenshain's closest rival for the nomination.

Warner is an amiable dilettante. His first marriage -- to heiress Catherine Mellon -- had made him rich; marriage to his second wife, movie star Elizabeth Taylor, made him richer, and famous. "We never saw Warner ahead in the polls," recalls Bill Royall, a former Dalton aide. "But we got close enough that our machine made the difference." dWarner finished a mere 3,700 votes ahead of Miller -- a 0.4 percent margin.

But the party had won. By doing so, it had shattered some sacred Virginia taboos. Warner had been born out of state; he was a former official of the federal government; he was married to a movie star with a scandal in her past, a woman who was not even an American citizen. Overcoming such handicaps against strong opposition was impressive enough; to have done so after a late -- and devastatingly demoralizing -- start was even more impressive. In the wake of Warner's election, Virginia's GOP reigned supreme.

Today, after collecting the bounty of 1980, the party controls nine of Virginia's 10 congressional seats. Republicans ooze with confidence about the future. Dalton's press secretary, Charley Davis, recently boasted that the only way a Republican could lose statewide in 1981 would be "if all the voting machines malfunctioned on election day."

Meanwhile, their Democratic rivals remain in disarray. A rebuilding program began in 1979. "It'll take five to 10 years to catch up," admits Bobby Watson, a former assistant to the state party chairman. "We have pitiful direct mail. The Republicans can drop a direct-mail appeal and raise $100,000 -- we can do it and raise $10,000."

Nowhere is the disparity clearer than in the plush corporate headquarters of North American Marketing, a polling and direct-mail firm started last June by Bill Royall. The backbone of the business is contract work for the Virginia GOP. The firm is already grossing more than $500,000 a year -- and its computer room looks like the bridge of Battlestar Politica. aSen. Harry Byrd Sr. would decide on his favored candidate, and "the word" would filter out to the 500 or 600 men who controlled the state's politics.

Royall's eyes sparkle behind his John Dean glasses as he recalls those days. "Nothing has changed," he says wryly. "We just get the word out differently these days." For example, Royall has licked the perennial problem of the "personal" computer letter in which the name of the addressee repeatedly appears on a different level from the printed letter. Instead, Royall's computer prints the name first -- and a special printing press, using custom-designed ink, then fits the message around the names.

The key to the Republican operation, Royall explains candidly, is Main Street money. "The extra punch to be able to get your message to 500,000 people around the state in the weeks before the election comes from dollars provided by very generous business people," he says. "It's people who believe in good government -- and want to keep Virginia's economy just the way it is because they're thriving."

Against this backdrop, two candidates -- both young, both conservative, both former Marines and Vietnam veterans -- will contest for the governorship of Virginia. Because they are so similar, they engender a strange parallax effect, as if they were two halves of a stereopticon card trying to fuse into one three-dimensional whole.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Charles "Chuck" Robb, 41, is a sober man with a flamboyant past, who seems to warm quickly to discussions of the Marine Corps, the state budget and old families and houses. Republican Marshall Coleman, 38, salts his conversation with references to Dylan Thomas, Tom Wolfe, Edward Hopper, and "Amadeus"; but except for his three-year hitch in the Corps, he has passed his whole life in the comfortable confines of Virginia politics.

Chuck Robb is a dull man living an interesting life; Marshall Coleman is a small-town boy with big-city dreams. And each is a bit of confusion and an embarrassment to members of his own party.

In fact, the two men could easily trade places. Robb is a natural conservative, a man of the establishment leading a tattered coalition of outsiders, urban blacks, trade unionists and Northern Virginia liberals. Coleman is an outsider, a natural activist and reformer leading a prosperous bloc of conservative businessmen and standpat suburbanites.

Robb first came to national attention with his White House wedding to Lynda Bird Johnson, daughter of then-president Lyndon B. Johnson. He burst upon the Virginia political scene in 1977, winning the lieutenant governorship without political experience. His good looks, name recognition and family wealth give him a lock on the Democratic nomination. But large numbers of Virginia Democrats find him an enigma.

Henry Howell has publicly urged his followers to consider bolting the party if Robb is nominated. Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, the state's lone black senator, warned that blacks "can go fishing" if Robb does not mend fences with the black community. Nor are his troubles all on the left. State Senate Majority Leader Hunter Andrews, an acerbic conservative figure, openly derides Robb, whom he calls "Chuckie Bird."

These soothsayers are trying to understand Robb in traditional Virginia terms. He doesn't fit. A visit with the lieutenant governor in the palatial McLean home he shares with Lynda and their three children reveals him as a thoughtful, engaging man with deeply conservative ideas. When asked what issues engage his passions, he answers that he would like to help dismantle the welfare state his father-in-law helped build.

"The pure libertarian would suggest that government ought not to be really involved in anything -- 'Just let me alone, absolutely laissez-faire, and stay out of my life,'" he says. "Well, there's a little of that in me.

"Government is involved in a lot of projects that it really shouldn't be involved in, and there's a constituency for these programs, which are all well-meaning. There's very few programs that I've been able to find that don't have a rational humanitarian reason, and yet they tend to grow a little bit like Topsy, and we find that as taxpayers we are required to support a government that is beyond the control of any of us."

Robb's life is a diorama of the postwar age. He was a Sputnik child who studied engineering to beat the Russians, then shifted to business administration and finally to the Marine Corps. He led his class at Marine Basic School, which led in time to an assignment to White House duty, and to marriage.

Robb volunteered for Vietnam, where he commanded a rifle company, arriving just after the Tet offensive. He won a Bronze Star, then returned to tour campuses in uniform, defending the war. He has mingled freely with presidents, cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices and power brokers of every stripe; yet when asked to name the formative influence of his life, he recalls the time he lost a race for class president at the University of Wisconsin.

He had never failed at anything before. "I was confident -- too self-confident, and I think it showed a little," he recalled. "Any time I start feeling too good about what's happening, I always step back and think, 'Hey fella, you're just as human as everybody else, and just as vulnerable, and if you forget that, you're going to be in trouble.'"

He is a Democrat largely by marriage. To this day, he refuses to say whom he voted for in 1964, the year his future father-in-law swamped Barry Goldwater. He has been careful to speak well of such conservative figures as Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. and the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority. He volunteers his approval of Dalton's refusal of federal aid for the mentally disabled because of requirements that the state develop a computerized system to monitor the program (Dalton claimed the move would cost $5 million; advocates say that figure is far too high.)

"That to me is an admirable approach," Robb says.

And if he has not engendered a rabid personal following, he understands why.

"It's been my experience that an awful lot of the people who are successful in the political process do tend to be a little aloof," he says. "People ask me where the military influence is felt, and I suspect it's in that area, the development of what I would call -- I won't call it this -- 'command mystique' was what I was going to say. You have to be able to draw some lines.

"Lynda's father was an excellent example of those who don't operate effectively unless he had a lot of people around him. He reached out, and he wore his heart on his sleeve. But most of the people that I have seen in positions of responsibility don't operate that way. Maybe they're less visceral -- and less lovable. I may always be a little less than lovable."

For entirely separate reasons, some Virginia conservatives find Robb's rival, John Marshall Coleman, less than lovable as well. "It's very hard to define what it is about Marshall that fails to engender confidence in so many people," says W. Roy Smith, a former legislator. "But it does."

After an abortive search for a replacement, though, coleman's foes have confronted political reality. Four years on the rubber-chicken circuit have given the attorney general an unshakable grip on the party faithful.

Coleman seems a bit bemused by the questioning of his conservative credentials. "Maybe it's because I'm not 100 percent in anybody's ideological prism," he said recently. "I really think that mine has been a thorough and authentic conservative record."

Coleman's image problems began four years ago. He was a freshman state senator, a hillbilly upstart from Staunton (his previous accomplishments included a surprise victory for student office at the fraternity-bound University of Virginia as part of an anti-fraternity revolt, and a tour in Vietnam, where he served as an intelligence officer and won the Navy Achievement Medal). In 1977, he wrested the party's nomination for attorney general from the favorite, Northern Virginia legislator Wyatt Durrette. Coleman's literature in the party-faithful-only fight suggested that Durrette favored public employe unions and opposed the sales tax on food. Coleman was nominated as a conservative. But then, in a virtuoso political display, he overcame a 26-point deficit in general election polls by peeling off the left wing of the Democratic coalition.

His Democratic opponent had a segregationist past. Coleman's attacks on this record persuaded the Virginia Education Association and the black umbrella organization, the Crusade for Voters, to support him. He won the election by nearly 7 percentage points.

"It's perfectly consistent with a conservative philosophy to say that under the law all men are equal, all women are equal," he says a bit defensively. "I don't think that's inconsistent."

Maybe not, but in the dusty paneled chambers of Main Street, racial moderation is a serious charge. Coleman's appeal to black voters was followed by a key role in negotiating the settlement with HEW. "It's true that Virginia has had a history of fighting over racial issues, and we didn't in this case," he said. "I think that's to the good . . . I don't think anybody was anxious -- no, I take that back. A lot of people felt that we shouldn't draw the line on a racial issue because of all that betokened. We're still drawing a lot of lines with the federal government -- we've still got a lot of cantankerousness relative to the federal government."

Indeed, an observer scanning Coleman's record would agree with his own recent complaint that his reputation as a "moderate" was a "bum rap." He has filed suit to void a dues-checkoff agreement for Richmond's teachers, fiercely defended the state's much-criticized worker safety program from federal interference, and drawn a hard line against bilingual education.

His real enthusiasm is reserved for tough anti-crime measures. He has tenaciously -- though so far unsuccessfully -- pushed a series of measures to standardize sentences for criminals conicted in state courts.

But many wonder if Coleman's past performance portends a career as a political chameleon. In one area, at least, Coleman's conservatism clearly differs from Robb's. The lieutenant governor seems to want to halt government in its tracks, even in the mild form of the disease that infects Richmond. Coleman, however, waxes enthusiastic about the possibilities of state government, if it could get the federal monster off its back.

"I'd like to see a two-tiered system of government," he said. "The states can't sit out here and say, 'this far and no farther,' and then do nothing. There are terrific responsibilities that the state has. We're the natural protectors of the people against violence. We need to educate the young people, maintain a transportation system. All these things are not war-and-peace issues, but they're extremely important -- and I think they're going to be where the action is in the '80s."

These small differences suggest where the action will be this year (and, perhaps, in the nation a few years hence) -- a mad scramble for the right. Each candidate will play to suburban voters, court the Main Street money and throw discreet winks to potent but out-of-favor liberal blocs, particularly blacks.

The conventional wisdom holds that Robb must lock up the black vote. But Coleman has strong supporters in the black community; and Robb angered many blacks during his clumsy attempt to mediate the dispute between President Carter and Sen. Harry Byrd Jr.

The Carter White House mistakenly invited Byrd to submit nominations for four federal judges for Virgina. Byrdfollowed Carter's system of commissions in deciding on the names, and, reflecting their conservatism, the commissions produced a list that was all male and all white. Robb then suggested that the White House must take its judges from the lists. Black groups raised a furor; then news leaked out that Robb had approached Richmond's influential black mayor, Henry L. Marsh III, as a possible nominee under an abortive compromise plan by which another vacancy would be created.

"He gets a failing grade on that," says NAACP director Gravely.

But Robb may have a card to play. "I can envision Lady Bird Johnson making a sweep of the black community," says Raymond H. Boone of the Afro-American Newspapers. "That alone will be a cause for many blacks to support Robb."

Few would question that Coleman is better positioned for a conventional campaign at present. Robb's sphinx-like behavior has left many potential supporters wondering who he is. Nonetheless, he led Coleman in a recent poll by 44 to 29 percent.

In fact Coleman is a more conventional politicial than Robb -- and a good one. If the past pattern of Virginia race holds, the Republican machine will enable Coleman to overtake Robb, whipsawing the lieutenant governor with charges of liberalism. But Robb is actually well poised to break the pattern. He can run a richly financed image campaign of the type which has recently elected well-financed newcomers like Kentucky's John Y. Brown, or Alabama's Jeremiah Denton, whom in some ways Robb resembles. He is not locked into a long series of positions which would prevent him from tailoring his political message to the needs of 1981.

The candidates estimate that they will each need upwards of $2 million; some observers suggest the final tab could be twice that.

Robb's personal worth probably approaches $1 million. But he has never disclosed the worth of the assets held by wife Lynda, who owns approximately one-third of LBJ Co., the affluent communications company built by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. As a former law associate of Edward Bennett Williams land Joseph Califano, Robb has access to Democratic fundraisers who may be eager to buy the party a victory in the wake of the 1980 debacle.

"There is interest out of state," Robb says obliquely. "People in several cities have volunteered to help out."

But Coleman, though not personally wealthy, will have some celebrity appeal as well. A Virginia fundraiser is only a heicopter ride from the White House. And Coleman plans to stress his ties to the new administration.

"If I am nominated," he says comfortably, "I will be running with the blessing of quite a cast of characters -- nine Republican congressman, a Republican Senator, a Repubican governor, in harmony and linkage with the new Republican administration. The people of the country have reposed so much trust in a Republican administration, their incentive to disposses the Republicans in Richmond, I think, is going to be very minimized. So I think the financing will reflect what will be a very viable campaign.

So Virgina will have, for the first time in this century, a race between two men who have personal and political roots in their national parties. Many in the nation who smirked at Virginia's previous antics will be scanning next November's results for clues to their own political fates. And the race will be dominated as never before by national issues and by national political consultants. Coleman has hired Doug Bailey and John Deardourff, the consultants who masterminded Jerry Ford's 1976 media campaign. Rob will be working with Bob Squier, the media wizard who ballyhooed, among others, John Y. Brown.

"He's got a great opportunity to begin to say what the future of the Democratic Party is all about," says Squier of his new client. In Squier's view, the old New Deal coalition is finally dead.Robb, in his view, "will present a way of looking at being a Democrat that will be different from what we've seen before."

Whatever the message, the medium will be television. Doug Bailey says each candidate must match the other dollar for dollar in media presentation. "This time the battle is not going to be for organization," he says, "this time the battle for hearts and minds is going to be for media communication."