On election night in Richmond, as the dimensions of John Dalton's victory in the govenor's race dawned on his supporters, the ballrooms and hallways of Richmond's normally sedate Hotel John Marshall were an index of the political change underway in Virginia.

There, where carefully coiffed Junior League wives had applauded conservative Democratic vistories in the past and the florid-face reltors and developers of the Holton Republican era had slapped backs and drunk hteir bourbon, the halls were alive with cheering young people.

There were beer-imbibing 18-year-olds in blue jeans and Scoth-sipping suburban singles dressed to kill. There were young men in three-piece suits analyzing vote totals and leggy young women in brackless dresses kisisng all the men.

There were balcks in tweeds and cola miners in pin strips, swinging singles big-eyed on pot and a girl in a low-cut green dress with a butterfly tatooed on one breast.

It was not the crowd you might immediately associate with Republican Dalton, an earnest but low-key candidate about as flamboyant as a glass of milk.

But they were his, were the hundreds of others of all ages, races and job descriptions yelling and cheering him on.

Somehow the Dalton campaign had manged to achieve that indefinable quality that every campaign seeks and that money alone can't buy: the electric sense of being where the action is.

Four years ago, with Watergate erupting in Washington and the Vietnam War still a fresh memory, most of the young people in the John Marshall on election night would have been spectators in the political process or good prospects for a Democratic Party keyed to change and relevance.

Now they had been captured, for this election at least, by a self-effacing soft-sell millionaire from Radford, Va., whose idea of action is a day with his bird dogs.

But what had led to the change? Part of the answer is sociological, part economic.

In an era of declining birthrates and a state of general economic health, young people are generally better off and freer than ever before. more women are working in better paying jobs. The result is the proliferation of younger voters less concerned with economic need than with individual frredom. Their natural inclinationis to want not more governement but less.

For many young people the rapproachement with Republicanism began with former President Gerald Ford, whose loyal but independent children and ski-vacation lifestyle did much to erase the authoritarian image of the Nixon years.

The Dalton campaign, directed by an image conscious former GOP youth coordinator named William A. Royal, 31, packed its ranks woth bright, attractive young people and recuited heavily in suburban-singles apartment complexes and high rises.

Royal, an irreverent, quick-minded character with no small sense of irony, seemed determined to vanquish the stuff-shirt image of the Godwin years. For several weeks the Dalton press bus was a shag-carpeted, bar-equipped van of electric blue known as "The Love Machine."

While Dalton reached out to the young voters, and talked of the future, his oppent Henry Howell, on the other hand, was narrowing the focus of his campaign and talking repeatedly of the past.

Over and over again Howell recited his past battles for things like poll tax repeal and reapportionment, issues as remote to most young voters as the other side of the moon.

A paunchy, white-haired man of 57, Howekk did little to counter his granfatherly image, and regularly intensified it by complaining about the youthful shortcomings of his own children in his speeches and likening them to his opponent.

In several instance, Howell removed youthful upbeat campaign staffers from highly visible positions, leaving his organization cloaked largely in the Archie bunker identity of labor union leaders, who aren't known as magnets for youth.

There was, of course, far more than cosmetics involved in Dalton's victory, including tremendous organization and a great deal of money.

But the lesson of election night was that a great many of the door knocking Dalton volunteers and telephoners came from the natural constituency of the Democratic party - a constituency the GOP was assiduously wooing while Howell was turning it off in droves.

It's lesson the Virginia Democratic Party might well ponder as it picks up the pieces and wonders where its future lies.