In the uncertain tide of recent Virginia Democratic politics, Hunter B. Andrews is one of the cross currents.

After 15 years in the state Senate, he is one of the top five in seniority and is judged in regular polls of the Richmond press corps to be one of the top five in influence. Through a combination of key committee assignments and legislative skill he has played a large role in shaping education, election laws and recent state budgets.

However, his legislative and political record - being scrutinized now as he runs for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate - defies easy analysis.

He came to the state Senate by unseating an incumbent who was a virulent foe of the conservative Byrd Organization. But in the years before his Senate race, he was the progressive chairman of a Hampton school board that voluntarily desegregated the city's schools in opposition to the Byrd policy of massive resistance.

He was perceived as a conservative when he ran for office, but he campaign against the poll tax, and in 1960 was a John F. Kennedy supporter in a Virginia Democratic convention delegation that was pledged at the bidding of the late Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. to vote for Lyndon B. Johnson. Andrews later managed the Kennedy campaign in Hampton.

In the Senate, he has been resented by some as the "fair haired boy" of the conservative faction, but on issues he cannot be classified as such. Early in his career, he squeezed a compulsory school attendance law past the Senate's old guard. He has been in the minority as a supporter of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and on other issues has generally taken a progressive tack.

Above all Andrews is the Senate orator. When he debates, which is often, his voice fills the small Senate chamber with Tidewater tones of a quality that in Virginia denotes not only place of birth but lineage. Andrew's ancestors, as he will mention, arrived on the Virginia Peninsula in 1610. He is a collateral decendant of George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The frequent identification of Andrews with the conservatives in the Senate results partly from his personal ties to them and to former Rep. Thomas Downing of Hampton. He also is one of the Assembly Democrats who kept close links with former Gov. Mills E. Godwin when Godwin, in the midst of the turmoil that has beset Virginia Democrats since 1969, switched to the Republican Party.

Now, in the contest among eight Democratic candidates for the Senate nomination, Andrews regards himself as the best suited to bring back to the Democrats those voters who have strayed to the Republicans during the last decade. During those 10 years, marked by the rise of liberals in the party organization and polarization for and against populist Henry E. Howell in his unsuccessful races for governor, the Democrats have failed to win a single U.S. Senate or gubernatorial election.

"Basically, Virginia remains a Democratic state," Andrews said in an interview during a recent campaign swing through the Shenandoah Valley. "I am telling Democrats wherever I go that Mr. Jefferson's party has many rooms and can accommodate many points of view. We must take that approach if we are going to bring back the voters who have not been with us in recent years, and we must have them to win."

Shortly before, he had spoken to a handful of party committee members at the Clarke County courthouse in Berryville and given them the message that has sold so well in past Democratic years - praise of the party and Virginia traditions mixed with disdain for federal spending and bureaucracy.

"I have always been in the Democratic Party," he said, "From block worker, to precinct worker, to city chairman, to district chairman. I believe it is the Democratic Party that has brought Virginia its greatness and the nation its greatness."

His discussion of most issues led into a commendation of Virginia policies and practices. "I have been a participant in the reform of the election laws in Virginia. We have the fairest election laws. It is the easiest thing in the world to register to vote and to vote in Virginia. All you have to be is a human being."

In the interview, Andrews defended relatively low voter turnouts in the state. "You have to remember that we are a short ballot state and we hold our state elections in years other than federal election years," he said. "This means we have fewer candidates running in any one election. It is a multitude of candidates that produces high turnouts."

Of rising federal spending and deflicits, he told his Berryville audiences, "To me, the greatest issue facing this county is jobs and the rising cost of living. A major contributor to this horrendous problem are the actions of the federal government itself. You cannot continue to expect the consuming American public to bear the brunt of this spending."

Andrews is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and he speaks of his role in shaping the state's school laws at every stop. "I have tried since I have been in public life to upgrade the quality of public eduction," he said in Berryville. "It is through education that people can be removed from poverty and given the opportunity to stand on their own two feet, regardless of their station in life.

"It is through education that an individual has the opportunity to train and become a full human being, and it pays dividends to the individual and to society as a whole. I have dedicated my public career to that and I am proud of my record in the field of eduction."

In the limited debate of issues in the nomination campaign, there has been little to distinguish Andrews from other contenders. However, after most other Democratic candidates said they would have voted for ratification of the first Panama Canal treaty, he continued to oppose it, saying it did not include adequate safeguards against a hostile government in Panama.

Despite his influence in the Senate, Andrews is not well known outside eastern Virginia's 1st Congressional District. Moreover, his campaign got off to a halting start when he announced in November, changed his mind and decided not to run in January, and then reannounced at the urging of supporters a few weeks later.

Now he is among those candidates whose fortunes appear to depend on an inconclusive result April 15 when perhaps 25,000 Democrats gather at 136 city and county mass meetings to choose 2,795 delegates to the June 9-10 state convention in Williamsburg.