Henry E. Howell stood under a large oak tree here the other night offering a group of teachers and reporters another of his many, homely religious similes.

"I'm like Billy Graham," Howell proclaimed. "I come in, give the message, and then leave the work up to the parish preacher."

Last week, however, Howell ruefully discovered that few teachers in the 45,000-member Virginia Education Association were willing to become ministers for his conversative Democratic running mates this fall. Despite the warm, almost wild reception they gave Howell and their unanimous endorsement of his third race for governor, the teachers refused to buy Howell's suggestion that they support what he calls "the rainbow ticket."

Not only did the teachers ignore Charles S. (Chuck) Robb, the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant governor, but they overwhelmingly endorsed Republican of Staunton over Democratic Del. Edward E. Lane of Richmond for state attorney general, Lane, the most conservative member of Howell's ticket, fell victim to blistering attacks on his support for Virginia's "massive resistance" to public school integration and his strong opposition to collective bargaining for public employees.

Coleman's victory, as Howell himself would concede, says something about the limits of Howell's ability to line up liberal support behind a man who cut his political teeth supporting the very policy that propelled Howell to public attention: "massive resistance." Indeed there probably could not have been a more prophetic setting for the confrontation than here in Prince Edward Country. In 1959 the local white power structure chose to close public schools for five years rather than comply with the law of that land by educating black and white children in the class room.

To some Republicans the significance ow what Coleman acheived here at the meeting of the teachers' Virginia Political Action Committee may well stretch well beyond the Nov. 8 general elections.

Immediately it should give Coleman the needed momentum to make a serious run at winning the second major statewide endorsement up for grabs this month, that of organized labor. Unlike his Republican gubernatorial running mate, Lt. Gov. John N. Dalton, Coleman appears to taking no groups for granted. "I haven't written off any groups," Coleman said as he worked his way through a lobby filled with teachers here.

When the Virginia AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE) meets in ROanoke next weekend (Aug. 1920), Coleman will be there, hoping for a repeat of his Farmville endorsement. Howell aides say that is unlikely, because Virginia's union members, unlike teachers, are overwhelmingly Democratic. Still Coleman's appearance in ROanoke is telling, Some Republicans Beleives.

Coleman says that he is out doing what he has always done, attempting to get the Republican Party to "broaden its base, to reach out and get new members" and to get the groups that the party has frequently conceded ro Democrats.His arguement is not new in Virginia.

Linwood Holton espoused it for years and then used it in 1969 to become the states first Republican governor in modern times. But since Holton fell in disfavour with conservatives in his own party in mid-term, there have been few major Republicans in the state urging the party to chart a moderate approach.

Republican National Party Chairman William E. Brock is now urging that course for the party in the South, a region where Jimmy Carter's popularity has seriously hurt GOP efforts to build a strong viable base. To ignore blacks, workers and other long identified with the Democratic Party is to be suicidal in the south, Brock said during a recent luncheon with Washington Post reporters and editors.

Republicans cannot survive by attempting to "out-seg" the seg's " (offering a more racist position than that of longtime Democratic segregationists) or by merely "going in for the quick fix of the governorship," Brock said. What Southern Republicans must do is to broaden the party's membership, he said.

A former U. S. senator, Brock said he did that in Tennessee and added he had no doubt that Dalton would be seriously attempting to get back voters and other traditional Democratics away from Howell this year. Dalton aides agree that that is their strategy, but some Republicans are privately questioning whether it is.

Not only has Dalton apparently written off support from organized labor, they note, but he has also made a point of boasting of his support from oldtime Byrd Democrats, such as former U. S. Rep. Watkins Abbott, who was once widely regarded as one of the state's leading segregationists.

Although still saying he is part of a united Republican ticket, Coleman, by aggressively seeking support among the groups that Dalton has attacked, seems to be drawing himself apart d from Dalton. For instance, he has not attacked Howell and acknowledges that he wants to project his own image to the voters. "I don't intend to be a rubber stamp for anyone," he said in an interview here.

In his campaign flyer attacking Lane's support for "massive resistance" - a record "Worse Than You Think!" the flyer says - Coleman goes directly after Howell's supporters. It quotes Lane as saying in 1973 that he wanted to run for a lieutenant governor with Republican Mills E. Godwin against Howell. "I think it's most important tha Mills Godwin be elected," the flyer says Lane said then.

Of course, Coleman's victory here last week gives him no assurance of victory in November. Virginia Republicans, despite Holton's posture, have strikingly well by run s, despite Holton's posture, have strikingly well by running as strong conservatives without making overtures to blacks and union members.

Virginia was the only Southern state not to support Carter last year and some Republicans apparently are convinced that Carter remains unaccepted by his fellow Southerners in Virginia.

All of which serves up Coleman's strategy as crucial to the future of the Republican Party in Virginia. If he loses and Dalton wins, the conversatives will argue that theirs is clearly the best course for the party.

But should Coleman be able to fashion victory by following Holton and Brock's doctrines, than moderates and liberals in the party undoubtedly will have a stronger say next year at the party's convention. It will have to select a nominee for the U. S. senate seat being vacated by William L Scott and candidatesare not lacking. But there is a wide philosophical gap between party moderates who would like to nominates a Holton and the conservatives who have lined up behind Richard D. Obenshain, the former Republican national vice chairman.

What happens to Marshall Coleman this year may be a crucial factor in that decision.