Baked goods, lemonade and coffee were on sale at the back of the school gym and buttons with slogans like "Power to the Individual" and "Caution: Big Government May Be Hazardous to Your Health" could be purchased at another table.

Approximately 80 Prince William County residents sat in metal folding chairs, listening to the candidates, applauding some (John N. Dalton and Wyatt B. Durrette Jr.) more enthusiasically than others (Walter W. Craigie Jr., A. Joseph Canada Jr. and J. Marshall Coleman).

They were also congratulating themselves that so many people had shown up for the Republican Party's Prince William County convention.

"Three years ago," said airplane pilot and rancher Bob Singleton, "you could shoot a shot gun down Main Street at high noon and not hit one Republican. If you did it today, you'd be charged with mass murder!"

Exaggeration not withstanding, the Republicans in Northern Virginia are emerging from their post-Watergate slump.

The Republicans' greatest encouragement has been Virginia's rejection of Carter and endorsement of Ford (the only Southern state to do so) in the presidential election, which "indicates that the Republican Party is alive and well and developing and growing," said Keveney Robinson, the party's statewide organization director.

Many Virginia Republicans believe that millions of conservative Democratic voters, if they are not forced to declare themselves. Republicans (Virginia does not register by party), can be tapped and diverted to Republican candidates in the anonymity of the voting booth.

Craig Maurer, a hospital supplier in Prince William County, explained how it works in a local way. Two years ago the Republicans ran a woman for the Board of Supervisors and she lost the election by only 5 votes.

"Now the vote couldn't be that close if there weren't a lot of Democrats crossing over at the polls," he said. "We call them 'closet Republicans."

Whether the Republicans are really on the verge of a period of expansion or are engaged in wishful thinking, only time will tell. For now, they can point to small but significant gains.

There are between 55 and 60 declared Republican candidates for delegate seats statewide with three weeks still remaining before the filing deadline, Robinson reports. This is an increase from their 1975 post-Watergate low of 47 candidates and almost equal to the 1973 high of 60. "Our goal is 75 candidates," Robinson said.

When Loudoun County held its convention a couple of weeks ago about 100 persons attended, which was "most unusual for out here," according to Sandy Riley, vice chairman of the party's state committee.

In the 20th legislative district (Loudoun and Prince William Counties), where two years ago the Republicans put up only one candidate for three delegate seats, this year there are four candidates (two men and two women). All four attended last week's Prince William County convention.

And many Republicans point proudly to what they see as another sign of their renewed strength - the first legislative primary this year in the 20th district. Each district determines whether it is going to nominate candidates by convention or by primary, with Fairfax County having had legislative primaries for a number of years.

All five candidates for state offices attended the Prince William County convention. Wooing the local convention where delegates to the state convention in Roanoke on June 3 and 4 are elected is one of the first steps in the Republican Party statewide convention nominating system.

Over the past several weeks Republicans in each magisterial district have been meeting to elect their delegates to Roanoke. The "election" is actually a ratification of alist of Republicans who have signed up to go to the state convention.

A total of 1,817 votes will be cast at the state convention, with each district having a certain number of votes. The votes are divided among the delegated from each district. For example, if 87 delegates go to Roanoke from Prince William County, which will have 29 votes at the convention, each delegate will get 13/83 of a vote. There is no unit rule and delegates can vote as they please. A simple majority gives the nomination to one of the candidates.

Last week, about 125 people signed up to go to the state convention from Prince William County, according to Pat O'Leary, county convention chairman. But, based on past experiences, O'Leary said only about 20 to 30 of those will actually attend.

Most Republicans support the convention as a way of selecting candidates because they say it is cheaper than primaries. Several weeks ago the state party's central committee overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to have primaries for state offices beginning nest year. But according to Joseph D. Ragan, head of the Fairfac County Republican committee, "Ninety per cent of the people from northern Virginia voted for the primary.