Although Virginia's general election remains four months away, what is clearly some of the most important maneuvering over who will become the state's next governor already has begun in earnest.

Only, to use the Democrats' phrase, has become "unity month" with gubernatorial nominee Henry E. Howell and his staff taking to the stump in an effort to bind the wounds of last month's bitter primary with former attorney general Andrew P. Miller.

For Republicans July is, to use a phrase the party's press agents have usurped from Howell's 1969 race for governor, "free spirit" month. They are urging the state's once-solidly Democratic voters to move, as Howell urged his voters after a primary loss that year, as "free spirits" in the general election.

As a Washington Post survey June 14 dramatically illustrated, keeping the Democratic voters together is the most immediate and serious task facing Howell. According to the survey, nearly 40 per cent of voters in the primary were uncertain of whether they would support Howell in November or said they were likely to vote for Republican nominee John N. Dalton.

In an effort to plug massive defections, the Democratic caucuses of both the State Senate and House of Delegates last week lined up in support of Howell. General Assembly leaders issued warnings to other legislators that if they publicly deserted Howell this year they could face the loss of committee assignments.

Last week Howell himself held a private, four-hour strategy session with the party's nominee for lieutenant governor, Charles S. (Chuck) Robb of McLean. "The bottom line was unity-coordination; we're going to win," said Howell campaign manager William Rosendahl after the meeting.

To that end the party is planning a unity meeting in the Southwest corner of the state July 22 and will follow it with a second "unity" meeting for Sixth Congressional District Democrats on the next night in Natural Bridge.

Other similar functions are certain to be held elsewhere in the state during the coming weeks.But the Republicans are not going to remain silent this summer and allow predictions of Democratic harmony to fill the state's newspapers.

Dalton's Richmond press office last week began to churn out annuncements about once-prominent Democrats announcing their support for Dalton and urging others to do the same. "I am for "the free spirit" and, no doubt, thousands of Virginians will feel the same," said former Seventh District Democratic chairman John W. (Billy) Williams of Charlottesville in one release.

What significance the statements of people like Williams will have in November might seem open to question. Howell's upset victory over Miller would seem to raise a challenge as to their value.

An overwhelming majority of the state's legislators, for instance, supported Miller. Howell could probably have counted his legislative endorsements on the fingers of one hand. Yet he managed to defeat Miller even in areas where he had no endorsements.

The reason for this grappling for support from former party officials and others is a belief by Howell and Dalton forces that these people can, in a general election, influence enough other party workers to make a difference. In Northern Virginia, Howell simply bypassed the area's legislators, most of whom supported Miller, and won the support of precinct-level workers. "In a primary, these are the people who can get out the vote, said Adelard L. Brault of Faifax, the state Senate's majority leader.

Probably the most significant endorsement Dalton's staff issued last week was from Gov. Mills E. Godwin, the state's best-known former Democrat. Said Godwin in a message to a group of Democrats and conservatives backing Dalton:

"From the depths of an honest blief, from my every political instinct, as well as the hard reality of political analysis, I say John Dalton can win and that he will win," the governor said.

To assertions that Howell may be able to win the governor's office on this, his third try, Godwin said, not a chance. "I say that in Virginia their time is not yet - and never will be!" he said.

The early appearance of Godwin and his stern, almost strident language supports the belief that the Republicans are gearing up for a strong race by Howell.

As Howell has repeatedly said, there is good reason for their concern. And that is the support of President Carter, who has told Howell he will campaign for and whom Republicans privately admit is more popular in the state now than he was last November.

Virginia was then the only Southern state Carter failed to carry.

Not only can Carter lend credibility to Howell's campaign and help it raise money, but it offers Howell something he did not have in either of his 1969 or 1973 races: a carrot.

Howell's carrot this year is the President's ear and the knowledge of most Democratic Party workers that Howell can help control patronage to key federal jobs in the state. Thus some Charlottesville politicians were not surprised June 14, when one of the first arrivals at Howell's headquarters was State Sen. J. Harry Michael, a man whose name has been prominently mentioned as a likely candidate for a proposed federal judgeship.

To Howell strategists the significance of the summer may well be how many other Democrats walk through the door to their campaign in the name of "unity."