Report from ringside: In one corner. Andrew Miller, 6-feet-1, 195 pounds, wearing the dark pin-striped suit and the "Miller for Governor" button. In the other corner, Henry Howell, 5-feet-11, 180 pounds, in the light blue three-piece suit, wearing the "I Believe in Henry Howell" button. In the middle, Democratic party chairman Joseph T. Fitzpatrick, wearing a checked coat and no (campaign) buttons.

The occasion: the earliest possible moment to file officially as a candidate for the Democratic nominator for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.

"This has got to be the craziest thing that ever happened to me," said Fitzpatrick as he prepared for the 12:01 starting time yesterday, announcing referee-like, the ground rules for the filing event.

Fitzpatrick set up temporary headquarters on the top of a grand piano in Del. Richard R. G. Hobson's Alexandria living room, borrowed for the occasion because the party chairman had to be in Washington for a conference.

The whole point of his being there was so candidates could file at the opening bell. Theoretically, the first filer would get his name frist on the ballot, Fitzpatrick said that since both gubernatorial candidates were there at the same time, the ballot position will be determined by lot drawn by the State Board of Elections. Representatives of lieutenant governor candidates Ira Lechner and Charles S. Robb were also on hand to file at 12:01 a.m., so their positions will be determined by lot also.

As the magic hour approached, the photographers began snapping and the candidates made a pass at jocularity. Howell placed his arm on Miller's shoulder for the benefit of the photographers. Miller shook it off. "Don't you want to get together" Howell asked "After the primary," Miller said.

"I bought a new suit for this occasion," joked Howell. "I want to know if Andy did."

"No," said the former attorney general. "I'm unemployed."

Aides bearing boxes of petitions approached the piano. Lechner's people filed first, then Robb's, then came the first problem. Who would go through the motions first, Miller or Howell?

"We're going to flip a conin," Fitzpatrick announced. Howell won.

Reporters covering the event had asked each candidate earlier how many signatures each was filing (just under 10,000 are legally required.) Howell's people said "23,000." Miller's aide said "between 20,00 and 25.00."

Howell filed, and Fitzpatrick wrote down "23,005" on the yellow legal pad he was using to take noted. Then Miller filed, and Fitzpatrick asked the aide to give him the number of signatures so that it could be reported to the press. "An estimate?" the aide asked. "23,500 signatures."

"It's a small matter, but as a lawyer I'll have to ask for an official count," came the voice of Howell. Arguing that there was a "discrepancy" between what the aides had been saying earlier and what they'd told Fitzpatrick, Howell demanded a count for the sake of "credibility."

"Henry, I'd like to advise you that you were over there in the corner talking (during the exchange with Miller's aide)," Fitzpatrick said. Howell started to talk. "Henry, I've got the floor, I'm going to finish . . ." Fitzpatrick countered.

"I want the box seated and I want 'em counted," Howell said. "That's how you taught me, Joe, I'm just doing what you taught me."

At that point Howell's Eighth District coordinator, Pixie Bell, leaped jjust stop it," she said heatedly, pushing Howell vaguely away from the piano. By this time Miller was positioned in the back of the room, well away from ringside.

"Don't announce estimates," Howell continued. "If it's going to be a count, then I want a count. My people worked hard to get this together . . . I'm not accepting it!"

Hobson sent his son to find some twine in the kitchen. They tied up the boxes of petitions to seal them.

"You see why I wanted a witness," Fitzpatrick said to Del. Carrington Williams, who had been present during the occasion to perform that function.

Yesterday morning, Miller declined to comment on the proceedings, and his aides expressed dismay. Howell's people pointed out that he had had a trying day, travelling from Goochland to Alexandria and running out of gas on the way to HObson's house.

The race is officially on.