John N. Dalton has begun to unravel the enigma about what kind of governor he will be - and the answer probably is as unsettling to Virginia Democrats as it is welcome to Dalton's fellow Republicans.

First, in an Arlington appearance, and again last night in the Shenandoah Valley, Dalton signaled that he intends to be a strongly party-oriented governor.In what was one of his first major speeches since his landslide victory Nov. 8 over Democrat Henry E. Howell, Dalton pledged himself last Saturday to building his party's roster of state and local officials.

The indicates a clear break from what many Republicans say has been Gov. Mills E. Godwin's benign neglect of partnership and may telegraph that more hard times are ahead for the state's seemingly demoralized Democrats.

Not since Linwood Holton took office in 1970 have Republicans had a governor as willing to plunge into partisan politics. Godwin, who succeeded Holton as a Republican, frequently and publicly disdained the partisan aspects of being governor, saying principle was more important than party.

While campaigning for Dalton this fall, Godwin, a former Democrat, would announce that his endorsement carried an important proviso: "I would not be doing this if I believe it would be solely for the benefit of the Republican Party." As governor, Godwin also ducked numerous opportunities to campaign for Republicans running for the General Assembly. This fall Godwin further angered many Republicans when be announced he was supporting Democrat Edward E. Lane, a longtime personal friend, over Republican J. Marshall Coleman in the race for attorney general.

When Dalton takes office in mid-January the Virginia Republican Party seems certain to be run from his office on the third floor of the State Capitol. In fact, there is reason to believe that under Dalton the office of governor may be more partisan than it was at the height of Holton's power.

Unlike Holton, Dalton will be bringing into the capitol and into the party some of the same political people who ran his campaign for governor. William A. Royall Jr., the 31-year-old wizard behind Dalton's victory, will be a top aide and Royall's background is pure politics.

If Democrats have failed to grasp that message yet, then it should be clear from a look at Dalton's activities since he returned from a post-election vacation in the Virgin Islands.Last night, for instance, he traveled to Waynesboro to place his support behind a local Republican running for the state senate in a special election.

Just before his Arlington appearance, Dalton went to Newport News to the Peninsula Shipbuilders Association, a labor group that represents most workers at the huge Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. there. It was another indication that Dalton does not plan to take for granted the support of groups that Democrats have traditionally assumed was theirs.

And, in case anyone hasn't gotten the idea that the GOP intends to prosper under Dalton, consider the string of festivities Dalton's staff is lining up around the state next month to celebrate his inaugural.

The events, ranging from $150-a-couple inaugural balls in Richmond to a $5 prayer breakfast in Danville, are expected to clear $100,000 for the Republican Party.

While Democrats were meeting amid reports of abject poverty in Richmond, the Republicans jammed into the Twin Bridges Marriott Saturday to shout down objections to an ambitious $720,000 fund-raising plan for the party next year. The plan, which calls for a massive direct mail effort, will be administered by another key Dalton political aide, Jeff S. Gregson, 27, who was named as the party's new executive director during the Arlington meeting.

The fund-raising prepared by party chairman George N. McMath, was so aggressive that it had some oldtime conservative literally gagging over the figures. But it clearly had the support of Dalton who promised that as governor he will do his part to keep the party's coffers filled.

". . . Now is not a time to sit back and say all is well," Dalton told 250 Republicans at a $20-a-plate dinner at the Marriott. "Clearly the opportunity for us to broaden our base and increase our victories is here for us to seize."

At the same time Dalton promised he would "work closely" with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and would name Democrats and others to positions in his administration.

But with his promise of raising a huge war chest for local legislative races, some members of the Assembly are certain to be wary of Dalton. Republican legislators, who met with Dalton in Arlington for the first time since election, aren't so fearful and, in fact, seem to envision themselves as having a more important role than under Godwin.

Many of the senators and delegates grumbled privately that Godwin had been indifferent toward them and they had had to content themselves with a minor role in the Assembly. But Dalton privately briefed the Republicans on his initial cabinet selections and then promised the legislators they would be kept informed of his administration's strategy during the upcoming session. "We've never been treated like this before," said one senior Republican after the meeting.

With 21 votes in the 100-member House of Delegates, the Republicans can - "if we can get together" as Minority Leader Del. Jerry H. Geisler put it - force roll-call votes on issue that Democrats would just as soon see go unrecorded. With Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell of Alexandria floor leader in the other chamber, the GOP in the legislature seems likely to match Dalton's more aggressively partisan stance.

Whether Dalton can successfully build the Grand Old Party from the ground up seems certain to become one of the first challenges he has set for his administration. Judging from his ability to master the "mechanics" of Virginia politics and his ability to raise more money than any other Virginia politican, the state's Democrats now have a new reason to be worried about their future.*