Less than a week after John N. Dalton was elected governor of Virginia, he stepped intoa state office in Richmond and asked to speak to the high-ranking official who occupies it.

The receptionist looked up at the man who has been lieutenant governor for four years and won the governorship with a majority of almost 56 per cent and asked, "Who may I say is here?"

Score the receptionist low for attention to current events but high for grasping the fundamental question of the day. As for John Dalton prepares to assume the oldest office in English-speaking America, who, indeed, may we say is here?

We know Dalton us an unpretentious, conservative, western Virginia Republican , age 46, who is a lawyer and has served in both houses of the General Assembly.

He sponsored some important bills, including court reorganization and conflict-of-interest legislation, but they were largely the product of study commissions whose compromises he was willing to embrace.

Nothing in his record suggests a crusader, a fact voters seemed to appreciate. He beat a crusader, Democrat Henry E. Howell, by 160,000 votes.

His record does suggest a master politician who has achieved his successes through disciplined attention to detail. He has been winning elections all his life. In addition to his public offices, he was president of the junior class and student body at the College of William and Mary and potentate of the Kazim Shrine Temple in Roanoke.

In his first race for the House of Delegates, he beat a Democratic incumbent with a painstaking, door-to-door campaign. His lowest victory margin was 54 per cent in a three-way race for lieutenant governor in 1973.

His race for governor already is taking on the image of a masterpiece of political technology. Fundraising, direct mail appeals for money and votes, selective issue emphasis, media concentrations in areas of low name identification - every aspect of the campaign was deliberate and successful.

Howell looked back a week after the election and said: "Suddenly we were confronted by a bull elephant, gone mad and rushing through the forest, and there we were with nothing more than a pea shooter."

A er.

All of this tells us more about how John Dalton got to where he is than it does about what he will do as a governor.

The fact is, there is very little basis for predicting his course. There can be more certainly about his style. He learned the politics of accommodation well in the General Assembly. That's important to everyone in the Assembly, and to Republicans, who hold 20 per cent of the seats, it is a matter of survival.

It seems likely that Dalton will get along better with the Democratic majority in the Assembly than Howell would have. A week after the election, Howell publicly blamed Democratic legislators for the things he believes are wrong in Virginia.

In essence, he called for them to be reborn in his populist faith. He most certainly would have worked toward that end as governor.

There is nothing in Dalton's past to suggest he will waste any time trying to reform the Democratic majority and much to suggest he will work diligently to get along with it.

He regrets his service on the HOuse of Delegates Appropriations Committee as a high point of his legislative years. On that committee, he was a faithful follower of the "club rule" that requires its 20 members - no matter what their differences may have been in committee - to vote unanimously for the committee position on the House floor.

In its worst light, this is go-along-to-get-along politics. John Dalton clearly is not above such politics, but it would be hasty to predict his four-year term will follow only the courses that meet little resistance.

You have to go back to 1967 to find a gubernatorial winner with a bigger share of the vote. Dalton won by such a large margin that no single source of support can claim a special hold on him.

Some would argue that he owes more to Henry Howell, whose controversial career and style inspired a huge negatives vote, than he does to anyone else. True or not, this is a debt that will not have to be repaid.

Howell is so clearly defined in Virginia politics that his election would have perpetuated for yet another four years the era of hostility between the state's conservative political establishment and its insurgent dissenters.

Partly by defying crisp definitions and firm predictions, Dalton gives Virginia a clean slate. He is free to write on it what he will.