If Republican Lt. Gov. John N. Dalton is correct, the Nov. 8 Virginia gubernatorial race is being decided far from the campaign trail.

In noisy, crowded bare-walled rooms at inconspicuous locations like 5240 Port Royal Rd. in Springfield, 450 W. Broad St. in Falls Church, and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Leesburg Pike at Bailey's Crossroads, the winner of Virginia's race for the statehouse is being decided by push-button telephone calls, the candidate believes.

At dusk each night scores of campaign workers - some paid, others volunteer - jam around banks of telephones at these locations. They gulp beer and soda pop in between calls, as they undertake one the most tedious jobs in the campaign.

So important are the telephone banks that the staffs of both Dalton and his opponent, Herry E. Howell have cloaked most of their telephone operations in secrecy and directed workers not to discuss them with reporters. "We're very buttoned-up about that," said Richard Lobb, Dalton's press secretary.

"We won't tell you how many telephones we have, where we have them, and how much we're spending on them," Lobb said. Howell's state campaign manager, William Rosendahl, is almost as vague.

In an appearance Friday night before an group of conservatives and former Byrd Democrats, Dalton described his telephone banks as crucial to his fight against Howell and appealed for volunteers to help him man his Northern Virginia bank. "It must be done here in Northern Virginia and it must be done around the state," Dalton said.

As he has done in numerous recent appearance before conservative groups Dalton again laid the blame for Howell's Democratic primary victory over the more conservative Andrew P. Miller on Howell's skillful use of telephone banks.

The lesson of Miller's defeat has not beeen lost on Dalton. Today his campaign has installed about 200 telephones in every section of the state, according to one knowledgeable campaign worker. What is Howell's total number of telephones isn't known, but in Northern Virginia, a key section of the state, he appears to be badly outnumbered, 16 telephones to Dalton's 42.

The two candidates's Northern Virginia telephone operations mirror much of the differences in the two candidates operations. Howell's two telephone banks are in spaces donated by unions and are manned by volunteer workers.

Dalton's 48-telephone bank is on the second-floor headquarters of a Bailey's Crossroads Center building and is manned with paid employees. One worker estimates the bank has completed 75,000 calls since it was opened in early September. A good telephone bank worker is said to be able to make between 35 and 60 calls an hour.

In other sections of the state, Howell is paying for his telephone callers and Dalton is using volunteers, spokesman for each campaign say. The telephone banks are one major aspect of large field organizations each campaign has established across the state.Neither side is keeping tabs on the number of volunteers it has working in these local headquarters, but the total is certain to be in the thousands.

No aspect of the field operations could be as critical as the phone banks in Northern Virginia where the population is highly transient, party workers agree, Virginia does not have party registration. "How else do you know who the Democrats are?" asked Emilie Miller, head of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. "How can you walk to every door and find out who they are?"

Northern Virginians also tend to become enmeshed in the affairs of Washington and forget about state and local elections, said Joseph Ragan, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee. It's very important to let your people know that there's an election going on," he said.

There are certain rules of telephone protocol in Northern Virginia, according to Doris Slawson, who manages a three-night-a-week phone bank for Arlington Democrats. "For one thing, you don't call during Redskins football games. If you do, you lose more votes than you gain. People who were Democrats aren't Democrats any more if you interrupt the game," she said.