Any alert "political observer" should have been able to predict the first post-election statements of Virginia's major party gubernatorial candidates.

The winner, Republican John N. Dalton, called for unity. The loser, Democrat Henry E. Howell, called for a tough Fair Election Practices Act.

With almost 56 per cent of a record 1.25 million gubernatorial votes in his column, Dalton starts out a closer to his goal than does Howell.

It is possible to view the defeated Democrat as an incredible source of complaints about campaign practices.

In the last days of the campaign, Howell and his supporters broadcast radio commercials falsely accusing Dalton of supporting gun controls and concealing his sources of personal income.

A slightly zany letter mailed by a Howell supporter to possibly 300,000 elderly Virginians made such outrageous promises of tax relief that Howell was forced immediately to discover them.

A Howell television commercial had Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D-N.J.) making a comparison between the Dalton campaign and Watergate tactics. The comparison by the public official who presided over the Nixon impeachment hearings was tasteless at best.

Early in the campaign, Howell accused Dalton of trying to enrich himself personally through legislation he sponsored as a member of the House of Delegates. The charge was based on a banking regulation bill so inconsequential that it left everyone but Howell thoroughly unconvinced.

In the last heated days of campaigning, Howell's manager, William Rosendahl, linked Dalton to "the forces of prejudice." In the last days of the Democratic primary in June, Howell linked his opponent, former state Attorney General Andrew P. Miller, to "anti-Semitic" supporters.

Howell's cover for these campaign blows was a finger pointed conspicuously in the other direction. He compared Dalton's direct mail literature to Nazi propaganda and called the author of the letters "meaner than a junk yard dog."

Dalton and his supporters showed little remorse for the things they said about Howell, and for the most part insisted that everything they said was meticulously researched and accurate.

Dalton manager William A. Royall did disavow a letter from an independent group of anti-Howell conservatives who charged that the Democrat once advocated busing school children from Northern Virginia to Washington to achieve racial balance in the metropolitan area schools. In fact, Howell in a 1972 television appearance condoned the busing of Washington children into the Virginai and Maryland suburbs.

Dalton called on the same conservative group to alter proposed television ads attacking Howell. It compiled and finally abandoned its anti-Howell effort altogether at Dalton's request.

Dalton himself stretched the truth a bit in one speech by saying that Howell once called all businessmen "embezzlers" from the American consumer. Actually, Howell put the "embezzler" tag only on the "big boys," who he defined as utilities, insurance companies and big banks.

The massive flow of direct mail appeals from Dalton headquarters to mail boxes all over the state make tough arguments against Howell, but a case can be made for their fairness.

In general, the letters cited Howell's many controversial policy statements over the years and predicted that those positions would produce catastrophe for the public under a Governor Howell.

For instance, the letters predicted that public employee collective bargaining, favored by Howell, would lead to strikes and higher taxes.In speeches, Dalton alluded to th ehomes that burned in Dayton, Ohio, this year while striking firemen watched.

Howell tempered his support of collective bargaining and abandoned other controversial proposals in this campaign. However, it is hardly unfair for one candidate to argue that his opponent's actual policies are better reflected by legislative proposals and votes of the post than by ststements made a few weeks before an election.

Whatever the accuracy of the charges made by the candidates about each other in this campaign, it appears that all the controversial ones were fully reported by the press and fully answered by the other side.

This is a point against enactment of any bill attempting to regulate campaign practices. In a virgorously contested campaign, the candidates are not going to fail to point out falsehoods on the other side, and the press has fully demonstrated it would rather write about these charges and countercharges than the tedious issues of state government.

In this race, for instance, major newspapers that usually avoid controversial election-day stories published page-one reports of Howall's false gun control ads.

In such a climate, the public can judge without the aid of a Fair Campaign Practices Commission.