Republican gubernatorial candidate John N. Dalton has refused to face Democratic nominee Henry E. Howell in debate in their Virginia campaign, but today Howell succeeded in staging a face-to-face meeting of sorts.

As Dalton spoke in the foyer of a student activities building at Old Dominion University. Howell left an interview in a nearby room and crept up on his foe, picking his way quietly through a crowd of students.

As he reached the inner circle near Dalton, the Republican chanced to make a reference to "my opponent."

"John, I'm here," Howell said, raising his hand.

"Hello, Henry," Dalton replied with restrained civility.

The Republican then plunged ahead, attacking Howell for failing to endorse the state's law banning compulsory union membership and dealing with other questions from students.

He drew loud appause when he promissed to resist federal goals - he called them quotas - for minority enrollment in state colleges.

On Sept. 20, Dalton canceled further joint appearances with Howell because of what the called "personal attacks" on him by the Democrat at such meetings. Howell and President Carter, who stumped for the Democratic nominee on Sept. 24, have charged that Dalton is afraid to debate the issues.

After the Dalton appearance, Howell left quietly and declined to rate his opponent's performance. "I don't know how you can rate a candidate's performance without a debate," he said. "The only test were going to have in this campaign is when the people vote on Nove. 8."