When Virginia Democrats celebrating Jimmy Carter's inaugural crowded into a small, steamy banquet room in Washington last week, they were greeted by a glad-handing, gap-toothed politician and a table full of red-and-white campaign buttons.

The buttons weren't for President Carter, but they were being passed out by one of his earliest Virginia supporters, former lietenant governor Henry E. Howell, a candidate for the party's gubernatorial nomination this June.

Moments later when supporters of the party's other announced candidate for governor, Andrew P. Miller, arrived their faces flushed at the sight of Howell and his buttons. They quickly pulled out their orange-and-blue "It's Miller Time" label stickers and began slapping them on every supporter they could find.

The incidents illustrate dramatically how at a time when most Democrats were uniting in joyous celebrations, Virginia Democrats were once again tearing themselves into warring factions.

Admittedly the hastily-planned party at the National Democratic Club on Capitol Hill had many of the earmarks of a successful affair. "You didn't know there were this many Democrats in Virginia," chuckled Del. Robert Washington of Norfolk as he elbowed his way through the more than 1,000 people who paid $10 each for admission to the club.

Yet, to some, the list of those who didn't come to the party was as significicant as who did. Only a handful of the Virginia General Assembly, meeting in Richmond, bothered to make the trip to Washington.

Most who showed up were like Howell and Miller, announced candidates for statewide public office this year and anxious to win the support of the party-goers.

Chief among the absent was none other than state party chairman Joseph T. Fitzpatrick of Norfolk, a state senator, who said he was miffed at more Virginians not being invited the inaugural festivities. So rather than show up, Fitzpatrick, to the shock of some of the party's sponsors, stayed in Richmond with the rest of the legislature.

Only two of the state's four Democratic congressmen, Northern Virginia Reps. Joseph L. Fisher and Herbert E. Harris, bothered to make an appearance. Neither Reps. W. C. (Dan) Daniel nor David E. Satterfield, III, members of the party's conservative wing, appeared.

Even some of the supposed celebrities in the party who appeared got quizzical looks. When Lynda Bird Robb, daughter of former president Lyndon Johnson and wife of McLean attorney Charles Robb, a candidate for lieutenant governor, arrived, one woman was heard to ask "Who's that? Jackie Onassis?"

Most of the conversation at the party centered not on the inaugural or why Virginia was the only state in the Confederacy not to support fellow Southerner carter, but on the upcoming gubernatorial primary. "It's the main topic of discussion everywhere," said Ed Mabry of Virginia Beach, a Miller worker.

Indeed there was no way to escape it. Both men were working the crowd with their wives. Miller brought most of his fulltime staff and Howell had a photographer following him, snapping his photo everytime he shook a hand. A second Howell worker followed the candidate, passing out a "I believe in Henry Howell" button to each person to whom Howell spoke.

Also working the crowd were the three announced candidates for lieutenant governor, Robb, Del. Ira M. Lechner of Arlington, and Del. Richard S. (Major) Reynolds of Richmond, and the two candidates for attorney general, Del. John L. Melnick of Arlington and John Schell of Fairfax.

In fairness, it may be said that Virginia Democrats may prefer to look ahead to what is expected to be a fierce gubernatorial primary than to their performance in the past election. The party not only failed to carry Carter, but it also lost the state's seemingly safe first congressional district, and did unexpectedly poor in congressional races in the second, fourth, and ninth districts.

Republicans now occupy six of the state's ten congressional districts, the governor and lieutenant governors offices and one of the two senate seats. The party's efforts to get Senate Democrats from seating Independent Harry F. Byrd Jr. with the Senate Democratic caucus weren't even considered this year.

To find a statewide victory the party has to look back six years to Miller's 1969 victory for attorney general. And, as most of the celebtants in Washington probably realized, unless the party is able to unite itself after the June primary, it may be a long time before all Virginia Democrats have another celebration.

"I could never get this many people to a fund-raiser before an election," joked Rep. Harris as he was jostled about in the crowd.

But it was Mabry who looked around the room and asked the most serious question of the evening: "Where were all these people on election day?"

It is a question that the Virginia Democratic party needs to ponder.