When the story of this political year is written in Virginia, historians may find almost as much significance in the race for attorney general as in the contest for the governorship itself.

Those bidding against each other for the state's top legal post represent, in many respects more dramatically than their running mates, the forces of political continuity in Virginia and the forces of change.

On one side is Democratic Del. Edward E. Lane of Richmond, a boy-53-year-old grandfather, who for 24-years in the General Assembly has been a loyal captain in the conservative economic, political and social establishment in one of the most tradition-minded of the nation's states.

On the other is Republican State Sen. Marshall Coleman of Staunton, a rangy, sharp-tongued political loner of 35, who has won numerous headlines (and few legislative friends) attacking such long-time Virginia practices as secret selection of judges, loose regulation of lobbyists and quixotic sentencing in the state courts.

The office they seek has grown within the past eight years from a sleepy, legal referral service staffed by a handful of lawyers to a tightly-honed staff of more than 90 lawyers constituting almost a shadow government. The state attorney general serves a four-year term, is paid a $37,500 annual salary and has a $6,000 annual expense allowance.

"It's a very powerful position," Lane told a businessmen's breakfast in Lynchburg last Friday, "and one that needs somebody with responsible judgment. You know, it's so easy for someone to get in there and try to make a name for themself and really destroy people and businesses through that office."

"Its really a plastic office," Coleman said last week in Norfolk. "It can assume the character and personality of the person who holds it."

In an effort to demonstrate his "responsible judgment" Lane reminds his audience of his long legislative experience, particularly his current chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee.

But he often seems at times to value and promote his social and civic credentials as much or more than his political ones.

His campaign brochure, for example, notes not only that his wife attended exclusive St. Catherine's School and Mary Baldwin College, but also that she is a member of the Junior League Garden Club of Virginia and Museum Council."

Lane himself, the brochure says, is a member of the Loyal Order of Moose, a former Sunday school teacher and an Eagle Scout and "has received the Silver Beaver Award, the highest award for adult service in the Boy Scout Council."

In large capital letters the brochure announces: "ED LANE WAS NAMED THE MOST OUTSTANDING YOUNG MAN FOR THE STATE OF VIRGINIA FOR THE YEAR 1952."

"I hope that's the kind of leadership Virginians appreciate and want to keep," says Lane, as he campaigns across Virginia with a smile as fresh and a step as springy as if 1952 were just yesterday.

If Lane is the very model of Richmond-spawned political orthodoxy, his opponent is anything but. He is an aggressive maverick who campaigns with the disarming, self-depreciating style of a Republican Jerry Brown.

"I know you've all been losing a lot of sleep worrying about how I stand on these issues . . ." he told a student audience at Old Dominion University last week. "I'm a lawyer, but my other habits are good."

While Lane's brochure is largely a recitation of past offices and memberships held, Coleman's is studded with ideas and issues, and with not-always-predictable concepts about what the attorney general's office ought to be. His speeches are much the same.

"The lobbies and the special interests can afford their own lawyer," he's fond of saying. "They don't need one in the attorney general's office. The people do.

"I intend, if elected, to point the way toward reform in the processes of criminal justice in this Commonwealth," he told the Richmond Jaycees last week, ". . . in reminding people of the need to act.

"If you detect an element of confrontation in all this, I don't shrink from it. Because I think the time has come on this issue . . .

"Anyone satisfied with the status quo in government is simply taking up sapee . . . and I don't intend to just take up space in the Virginia Attorney General's Office for the next four years," Coleman said.

Coleman's unwillingness to take up space anywhere has rubbed many people the wrong way, however, both inside the Republican Party and without. His fellow legislators picture him as "brilliant but ambitious" and wonder aloud whether that ambition is sufficiently tempered with concern.

Any hungry young legislator in a hurry hears the same sort of criticism, of course, whether in Richmond or Washington. But as one Republican put it, "Virginia Republicans probably feel this stronger. There have always been so few of us in the legislature that we've had to work very closely together to get anything done."

Coleman, he suggested, has often seemed pointed more toward personal headlines in his legislative maneuvering than toward team victories.

Lane, on the other hand, is viewed by the same legislators as being, if anything, too much of a team player: a workmanlike but uncreative legislative technician who in 24 years of public life has rarely questioned prevailing policy or initiated major proposals on his own.

"Lane, you see, is just a nice guy," one said.

Coleman says he wants to lobby for mandatory sentencing in Virginia for major crimes. Under his proposal, judges would be allowed some discretion in exceptional cases, but would be required to set down in writing their reasons for varying them from the statute-set penalties. Their decision could then be appealable by either the defendant or the state.

Coleman wants mandatory sentencing, he says, not to make things harder or easier on criminals but primarily to let them know exactly what they will face for the crimes they commit.

"Rehabilitation simply hasn't worked," he said. "I honestly believe equal punishment is the most egalitarian thing we can do for the offender, not to mention its deterrent effect on the potential criminal."

Lane says he favors some aspects of mandatory sentencing, but charges Coleman wants to be "a lobbyist for social causes," rather than a proper legal counselor for the governor and state agencies, the chief function of the attorney general's office. Such an advocacy role, Lane charges, would raise questions about any legal opinion Coleman issued on any matter on which he had previously taken a personal stand.

The two men's conceptual differences about the office they seek are compounded by their campaign styles.

Lane, a veteran of Richmond's multimember legislative district, is accustomed to multicandidate campaigns that place a premium on inoffensiveness. He has never before been subjected to a head-on-head political race and is clearly rattled when Coleman raises questions about his political conduct, his background or his record.

"I'm used to running in the third (Congressional) District where we have everything above board and forthright and we talk about issues," he complained in the face of a Coleman attack last week. "I'm not used to this kind of campaigning . . . I have probably done more to bring about efficiency and accountability in government than any single person in recent years."

Coleman, on the other hand, has charged Lane with avoiding debate, of conflict of interest in the legislature, and of insensitivity to blacks.

When Lane was voting in the 1950s to close Virginia's schools rather than desegregate them Coleman reminded black ministers in Norfolk recently, he himself was working for civil rights as a charter member of the Virginia Council on Human Relations at the University of Virginia.

"I joined the Republican Party because of massive resistance (to school integration)," he said. "The Democratic Party to me was the Byrd Machine and all the racial obstructionism that meant."

Party alignment, indeed, seems at times a burden to both men. In his visit with the black ministers in the hometown of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Henry Howell, Coleman got a good reception, but only after overcoming initial suspicion and ignorance of who he was. Yet he and GOP gubernatorial nominee John N. Dalton have "no major policy differences," Coleman says. Lane, on the other hand, finds himself running with Howell, whom his long-time allies are working hard to defeat. Lane studiously avoids saying he wants Howell to win, and, when asked point blank, says only, "I'm supporting the Democratic ticket."

Lane's campaign staff is a shambles. His organization in Northern Virginia is almost nonexistent and his office in Richmond last week couldn't tell a caller where he was or what he was doing on any given day. Lane himself had few details on his own schedule.

But as he traveled through Franklin County and Lynchburg, under the wing of Democratic Party regulars, he saw people where ever he went, and there were signs of good advance work.

Coleman, whose Richmond staff work appears to be metrodical and precise, saw few people on his Norfolk trip and ended up philosophically licking a cone of peach-flavored frozen yogurt in a shopping mall. "That was lunch," he sighed.

Then he drove to Richmond to a ward meeting at which nobody showed up.