The Democratic primary in Virginia is rapidly shaping up as an example of everything that is wrong with party primaries in dispute that prohibits registration by party and opens primaries to all voters.

The candidates themselves began to talk [WORD ILLEGIBLE] these problems last week. Andrew Miller charged that Henry Howell, his opponent for the Democratic nomination for governor, and John Dalton, the unopposed candidate for the Republican nomination, have entered itno an "unholy alliance" to creep the primary vote low.

Miller also accused Republican officials of encouraging members of their party to vote for Howell in the belief that he will be an easier opponent for Dalton in November.

Putting aside the suggestion that there is an explicit conspiracy between Howell and Dalton - Miller says he meant only to imply they have "parallel interests" - there is truth in both Miller charges. And that truth demonstrates how misleading it is to label this election a "Democratic primary."

What in fact is going to take place on June 14 is the first of two general elections this year.

One contest in the June 14 election is between Howell and Miller, the candidates who will be on the ballot. They are fighting for the clearly identifiable Democratic cote.

The other contest is between Miller and Dalton, who of course is not on the ballot. They are fighting for a great body of conservative voters. Some of them are Republicans. Most of them are former Democrats who now label themselves independents after years of voting for Republicans and Independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. in federal and statewide elections.

Experienced campaign officials in Virginia are unanimous in agreeing that the overwhelming majority of these conservative voters who cast ballots in the June 14 election will vote for Miller.

It is clearly in Howell's interests to minimize the conservative turnout. He is doing so by speaking often of similarities between him and Miller and by instructing his staff to mute his campaign in such conseravative areas as the Richmond suburbs, where a noisy Howell effort would only incite a larger conservative vote for Miller.

Dalton also speaks of the similarities between Howell and Miller and it is fair to infer from this, as Miller does, that Dalton also wants to minimize the turnout of conservative voters on June 14.

There is an obvious psychological barrier to wooing Miller voters to Dalton in November if Miller wins in June. Moreover, most Dalton supportes believe Howell is the easier opponent. He is a two-time loser in head-to-head competition with more conservative candidates.

Miller, on the other hand, is doing his best to draw the conservative vote into the primary. In his effort, he has received help from local governing bodies that have put controversial bond issues on the ballot in such bastions of moderate-to-conservative voters as Virginia Beach, Henrico County in the Richmond suburbs and Fairfax County.

In Virginia Beach, both Howell and Dalton backers are convinced that the conservative city council deliberately put a $21-million water and sewer bond issue on the ballot there to draw in potential Miller votes.

Some Republicans, such as former Norfolk city chairman Robert G. Doumar, believe there is a good chance that the courts would rule it illegal to force Republicans into a Democratic primary by joining it with a bond issue. But so far no one has come forward with a legal challenge.

Although there is agreement over the impact of the conservative vote generally in the Howell-Miller contest, there is less agreement over the effect that Republican regulars will have on June 14.

Most experienced campaign officials believe that a vote by Republicans for a Democratic candidate they don't like in order to set up an easier opponent for the GOP nominee is such a sophisticated vote that it will not materialize in significant numbers. They also believe it will be offset by casual Republicans who will cast their ballot for the most conservative candidate, whether they are drawn to the polls by the Howell-Miller contest or by a bond referendum.

However Republicans vote in the June 14 election, they will help frustrate the chances of Democrats to nominate a candidate for governor who has a clear-cut mandate to speak for the majority of the Democratic Party of Virginia in November.

The only way to create such mandates is to permit registration by party and prohibit cross-party voting in primaries. Failure to do so has blunted the effectiveness of the ballot in Virginia.

Even in a state where party lines are blurred, the parties play an influential role in government. The Assembly is organized on party lines and party identification affects the degree of trust between Assembly and governor.It also plays a large role in the election of judges by the Assembly.

In such a system, the electorate deserves an opportunity to reward or punish parties in general elections. That is not possible in Virginia because there is no true primary for selecting party nominees. On June 15, we will have a Democratic nominee for governor but we will not know which party, if any, chose him.