The marvelous thing about Virginia politics is the truly heroic gap between the Jeffersonian heritage of rational discussion, from which all state office-seekers insist they surely spring, and the fact-shading banalities of the campaign press release, to which they usually repair.

This year that gulf not only yawns wider than usual, it also yawns earlier. Less than two weeks into the fall campaign. Democrat Henry Howell and Republican John Dalton show all the signs of producing one of the least ennobling political exercises the Commonwealth has seen since the election of Sen. William Scott.

On the one hand we have John Dalton, who would have us believe the major issue in the campaign is repeal of the state's right-to-work law. Dalton says he would veto any repeal bill that passes the General Assembly. Henry Howell, he suggests, inspires no such confidence.

Dalton mentions this almost everywhere he goes, as if repeal bills were springing up like early autumn chrysanthemums in the legislative meadows of the Commonwealth.

Yet even the most liberal reading of the public mood would gauge the chances of any repeal bill (and none has been offered in years) about comparable to those of a bill to legalize homosexual marriage.

This is the same General Assembly, we must remember, that finds the Equal Rights Amendment too much to swallow. Repealing the right-to-work law is not exactly high on its agenda.

Howell, on the other hand, started out by promising (and then failing to produce) evidence of major, startling conflict of interest in Dalton's record. When news stories noted the discrepancy, Howell bared a wide Nixonian streak in his character which peeps out from time to the press. It was the press which brought evidence of Dalton's vast wealth to the attention of the Howell campaign in the first place.

But in Howell's speeches, the press has somehow been guilty of a cover-up for failing to prove his charges against Dalton.

How all this is supposed to enlighten the electorate is not altogether clear.

Equally unclear, and perhaps more to the point, is how it is supposed to enhance the credibility of either candidate before a public already skeptical of political hyperbole and weary of endless campaigns.

Dalton surely can find more meaningful issues in the campaign than conjuring up the sort of red herring "threats" to the right-to-work law which the old Byrd organization used to conjur up whenever the race issue waned.

In the long record and many public utterances of Henry Howell, he could search for reasons the voters of Virginia, wisely or not, chose twice to reject eh Norfolk Democrat as a candidate for the governorship.

If Howell's character and temper are an issue in the campaign (and Howell seems determined in his recent statements to make them one) they should be his demonstated traits and not those of some caricature sketched up by a Republican hired gun.

As for Howell, the rather thin legislative record of Dalton and what some would characterize as demonstrated insensitivity to consumer issues would seem to be ammunition enough.

And in choosing, from time to time, to rail publicly against the reporters who cover him and tape record his words, Howell is playing dangerous games, not only with the voters, but with himself.

For once he begins truly believing in his own mind that the press - rather than his own organization - should carry his chosen message to the voters, he will have effectively surrendered responsibility for his campaign. And with it any realistic chance at the office he has sought so long.