YOU SHOULD EXCUSE me. I come late to Virginia politics.I come late to catching on. For a long time, I bought the act, I bought all that business about how Virginia was different and there were traditions there that you had to be born in Virginia to understand and there was a different kind of politics there, a courtly politics practised by politicians who might be Republicans or might be Democrats but who were, at bottom, gentlemen. I bought that sort of thing and it threw me for a while, but lately I've been seeing the kind of politics I've always known. I recognized it by its smell.

At first I was intimidated. I would sit at my desk and listen to Virginia reporter talk of the nether reaches to the state like it was a foreign country. They would return like foreign correspondents, back from places like Southside and Tidewater or one of the valleys, and they would tell stories of snake worshippers or coal miners or of plantation life and if you asked a question - if you dared to indicate that you were thinking of Virginia as just another place - you would get that look - that You'll Never Understand look.

There is probably something to what they say. Virginia, after all, is something like seven states in one and that one has always gone its own way. It was the Capitol of the Old Confederacy and just to show it was something of a slow learner, it also was the capitol of the new confederacy - Massive Resistance and all that. It is not easy to make a judgment about a state like that, and so for a while I made none, treating it like someone else's religion - you don't have to understand it to respect it.

All of this tends to put you off, to reinforce the notion that Virginia is a very special place where the rules somehow don't apply, where things are done differently. The state's politicians talk this game. Gov. Mills Godwin, for instance, is forever talking about tradition, going around the state like some itinerant oral historian, reminding voters of the Virginia tradition of noblesse oblige in which politicians such as himself are summoned by both the voters and God to rule in Richmond. They are, by and large, gentlemen and they believe, in no certain order, in fiscal conservation, states rights, strict construction, highway funds and that Henry Howell is the devel incarnate.

Well, it's possible to swallow all this, to take these men at their word and to believe that there is something different about Virginia, that politics south of the Potomac is something like a swell horse show or a coming out party. But it isn't and if there is a difference between Virginia and states where politicans don't pretend to be gentlemen it is simply that the politics of the Old Dominion is a bit nastier. What we have at the moment, for instance, is men who call themselves gentlemen getting down in the gutler like just ordinary folks - trifling with the truth, hurling reckless charges and in general attempting to take the attention off the issues.

In fact, there is one Virginia tradition no one refers to and that is the last-minute use of race or religion to bring out the so-called redneck vote. In 1973, when Howell ran against Godwin, a letter was written and circulated by former Rep. Watkins Abbott who noted, just for the record, of course, that one of Howell's leading contributors was a Richmond businessman - a liberal, by God, and a Jew to boot.

This year, the fun has started a lot earlier. In September, Rep. J. Kenneth Robinson (R-Va.) wrote a letter on his House of Representatives stationary saying, among other things, that Howell on a "Washington based TV talk show urged that Virginia school children be bused into D.C." - a statement that just happens to be false. What Howell said in 1973 is on the record and you can scarch the transcript from now until after the election and find nothing about bussing Virginia children into Washington. This is what he said. "We can't afford to let the District go to pot. If there's going to be some distribution of the young people of the District of Columbia into Maryland and Virginia to save our nation from being a divided black-white nation, then we've got to try this." You can see that if Howell said anything controversial it was that Washington students should be bused to the suburbs - not the other way around.

Undeterred, the same conservative group produced a pair of television commercials that again distorted Howell's positions on various issues, including the sensitive matter of police and fire department unionization. The commercials were withdrawn, but the group that produced them - Independent Virginians for Responsible Government - had its contributions accepted by John N. Dalton and you hear previous little in condemnation about it all from those who go around the state talking about what it means to be a Virginia gentlemen.

As for Howell, he could be accused of the political equivalent of contributory negligence. He has not, for instance, helped matters any with his loose talk, but in his defense you would have to say that the most he can be accused of is wild exaggeration - comparing the attacks on him to Nazi propaganda, for instance - and not methodical distortion. Indeed, there are some who say you can't accuse Howell of methodical anything.

Howell, though, is not the point. The point is that few in the state's conservative political community are willing to call these so-called gentlemen to accounts. Instead, candidates like Dalton are doing some minor wrist-slapping, but accepting money from the people doing the distorting. You get the feeling that to do more would violate Virginia's political tradition - something you simply do not do.

With gentlemen like this, who needs rogues?