Although the office of attorney general is one of the most important in Virginia, the contest for the Democratic nomination for the job has inspired about as much interest as a sale on used telephone books.

Each of the four candidates - Del. Edward E. Lane, John Melnick and Erwin S. (Shad) Solomon and lawyer John Schell - says that he is not only mistaken as a candidate for governor or leieutenant governor, but many voters are not even aware the attorney general is elected in Virginia.

This lack of interest is apparent in the contributions reported on May 10 by the four candidates. Collectively they took in only $137,000, ranging from a high of $42,500 to a low of $24,500, which is less than some of the other statewide candidates will be spending on advertising alone.

Georgraphically and philosophically, the candidates offer a wider range than those running for governor and lieutenant governor. None of the four has emerged as a clear frontrunner; indeed, a recent statewide poll by a Richmond newspaper showed that 76 per cent of the voters were undecided, 7 per cent declined to comment, and 1 per cent wanted another candidate. In another poll, 95 per cent of those interviewed failed to identify any of the candidates.

The attorney general is the only full-time elected state officer other than the governor in Virginia. As a $37,500 a year ($45,000 next year) legal adviser for the state and its agencies, the attorney general heads a department with a $1.5 million annual budget and 126 employees, including 84 lawyers organized into five divisions and 14 specialties.

The office changed greatly during the nearly eight years it was headed by Andrew P. Miller, who is now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor against former Lt. Gov. Henry E. Howell. Before Miller's term, for example, the attorney general rarely offered legislation. Two divisions, antitrust enforcement and consumer protection, were created by the legislature Miller's tenure to give the office [WORD ILLEGIBLE] powers previously not available.

The attorney general also exerts influence through the written opinions interpreting laws that are requested by state agencies and local governments. Although they do not have the force of law, they are often accepted as the resolution of a particular question.

The attorney general is not a criminal prosecutor, but represents the state in court and has the power to bring lawsuits on behalf of consumer which is something all four candidates are stressing in different ways.

The candidates are:

Edward E. Lane, 53, a Richmond lawyer and member of the House of Delegates since 1954. He has the support of many of the more conservative members of the legislature. The campaign finance reports through May 10 showed that he had collected almost $89,000 and spent $78,000.

A tall, lanky man with a rapid-fire delivery, Lane stresses his experience in his talks with voters.

A conservative on money matters, Lane supported former Republican President Richrd M. Nixon in 1972.

He is criticized for this as well as for having supported the General assembly's program of massive resistance to racial desegregation during the 1950s, when laws were enacted to prevent integration in public schools.

"He would not support massive resistance today," said one of his aides, "He's grown up like all the rest of them have. It was 20 years ago, and reflected the sentiments of the area at the time."

Lane says that if elected he will establish an emergency services team with expertise in the field of emergency federal aid for disaster situations, and would work for more "sensitive and effective treatment" for victims of sexual crimes such as rape and incest.

He would establish an office to act as "ombudsman" with consumers for the purpose of referring complaints and giving information.

John Melnich, 42, has been a members of the House of Delegates since 1972. Born in Alexandria, he has been a resident of Arlington for most of his life. He served two years as an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Arlington, and since then has been a partner in a law firm in the country.

Melnick cites his experience as a lawyer and a legislator as his qualifications for the office, as well as a "humanist" viewpoint. He has won the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO convention and the political arm of the Virginia Education Association, although one large union, the United Transportation Union, has endorsed Solomon.

He is particularly proud of bills he either introduced or worked for that establish a fund to compensate victims of crime with money from fines of convicted criminals, and a "dealer day in court" measure designed to give small gasoline dealers equal footing with large oil companies in contract negotiations.

He also points to an amendment tacked onto a bill at the last minute in the General Assembly that sets up a system of mandatory sentences for repeat offenders convicted of certain crimes. Melnick did not sponsor the legislation, but worked for its passage.

He sees one of the attorney general's most important functions as his role on the crime commission, because "it is a clearinghouse for all crime legislation." He has been a member of it as a delegate and is familiar with its operations, he said.

He would creaate a separate division for consumer cases, and is concerned about "the basic conflict in having the consumer counsel in the attorney general's office. He can't represent every agency as well as the consumer with whom the agency is in conflict." Melnick would work toward establishment of a separate office for consumer questions.

Melnick had collected $73,000 in contributions, including a $25,000 personal loan, by May 10.

John T. Schell, 31, of McLean, is the youngest candidate, and the only one without previous experience in the General Assembly. The latter fact is a criticism he passes off with the observation that Miller had no previous experience when he first ran for the job in 1969.

Freckled and confident, Schell has designed a lean campaign aimed at specific areas and blocks of "highly motivated" voters who he feels are his best chance of winning in a four-way race.

Schell had spent more than $25,000 by the May 10 reporting deadline.

He views the job of attorney general primarily as one of people's representative, noting that in situations like utility rate increase hearings before the State Corporation Commission the utilities have battalions of highly paid lawyers, the SCC has a staff attorney, and the consumers have only the attorney general to represent their interests.

His desire for the office and plans for it are shaped by his experience as lawyer for the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, the Consumer Congress, and as a consultant to the Interstate Commerce Commission.

The first to announce his candidacy, Schell traveled around the state last summer to line up support and has been on leave from a Washington law firm since February.

Energy problems, which is one of Schell's priorities for the attorney general, is crucial because the nuts and bolts of President Carter's energy plan will be realized on the state level, he said. "The attorney general is really on the cutting edge of these questions," he said, "things like retail electricity rates, rate structure changes, changeovers to coal - these decisions will be made in richmond."

Erwin S. (Shad) Solomon, 58, is a lawyer from Hot Springs, Va. Elected commonwealth's attorney in Bath County three times, Solomon has also been a teacher, a football coach, principal, and an attorney in private practice. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1975, and has written several legal works, including the "Trial Tactics" section in the commonwealth's attorney's manual.

Solomon, got his nickname as a college football player. He described in a newspaper account as being as deft as a "shad running around the minnow" when he ran 40 yards returning a punt. His campaign slogan, "Not Just Another Pretty Face," is a wry comment on his more youthful opponents.

Solomon points to his years as a prosecutor in Bath, his 10 years on the state crime commission, work in the General Assembly, and service on study commissions about prisons as experience that qualifies him to be an effective attorney general.

He sees the attorney general as a consumer advocate who would be alert to such things as price fixing of food and unwarranted utility rate increases.

He also has strong views on the prison system, having visited prisons in th course of his work on different study projects. "Convicted sex criminals should be treated in mental institutions, not just prisons," he said, "If they do not respond to treatment they may be incarcerated for the rest of their lives."