When Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Flora Crater went before the Virginia Education Association convention in Norfolk last week, she spoke of the things that motivate her in politics - equal rights for women, full employment, collective bargaining for public employees.

She was well received. She came away, in the view of some, as the sentimental favorite with the politically active teachers - who nevertheless cautiously declined to endorse any of the eight Democratic candidates.

To Flora Crater, the warm reception by the education association delegates proved her contention that Democratic candidates can - and must - excite their natural constituency by advocacy of progressive policies instead of trying to appear as conservative as their Republican opponents.

"It was a heartwarming experience," she said of the education association meeting in a later interview. "People tell me you can't talk about such things as collective bargaining and hope to survive in Virginia politics, but I don't believe that. If we Democrats remain silent, we are putting ourselves in a bind, a trap, a cage. If we don't talk about the issues that are important to us and our constituency, we are not going to bring our constituency to the polls."

It is this attitude that sets Crater apart from her opponents. Most of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination are preaching party unity and electability, trying to end the era of polarization around conservative leaders on the right and followers of former populist Lt. Gov. Henry E. Howell on the left.

"They are trying to reunite the party," Crater said of her opponents. "I am trying to renew it."

Like Howell, who was decisively beaten by Republican John N. Dalton in last year's gubernatorial election, Crater believes Virginia Democrats can win in statewide races by advocating progressive legislation rather than returning to the conservatism of the party's past.

Most of the traditional Democratic constituency has been alienated by recent politics," she said. "Our people didn't vote last year because they felt it didn't make any difference. Dalton was elected by 21 per cent of the voting age population.

"Now, the candidates in the Senate race are not articulating the issues in a way that will stimulate our constituency. Henry really didn't do it, either, because they (his adivsers) shut him up."

Crater believes that emphasis of political moderation by Democratic front runners Andrew P. Miller, a former attorney general, and Clive L. DuVall II, a state senator from Fairfax County, will be fatal in a general election. "They are trying to appeal to what they think is a conservative Virginia electorate," she said. "The Republicans can do that better."

At 63, Crater is a veteran foe of the conservative political establishment. When she and her family moved to Fairfax County in 1942, she began her involvement in public life "working for improved schools for my children."

In those days, she recalls, her political opponent was Wallace Carper, chairman of the Fairfax supervisors and a member of the conservative Democratic organization fashioned by governor and later U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd. Jr.

Crater worked for such political causes as the creation of a county executive form of government and such political candidates as Ed Lynch, the first anti-Byrd Democrat elected to the General Assembly from Fairfax.

In 1971, she was a delegate to a Democratic convention called to nominate a candidate for lieutenant governor and a supporter there of former Del. Carrington Williams, now one of her opponents in the Senate race. In 1972, she was a McGovern delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

In 1973, Crater surprised many by collecting 10 per cent of the vote as an independent candidate for lieutenant governor. She spent only $15,000 but benefited from feminist support as an outspoken advocate of ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

"I got more votes for the buck than any other statewide candidate," she says.

Crater came away from last November's National Women's Conference in Houston with a determination to run for office again. "The conference focused on the lack of representation of women in all parts of life, including politics," she said. "I think it's important for women to see a woman in this race. I think it's important for the delegates to the state convention to see a woman candidate."

In this campaign, Crater has called for extension of the period for ratification of the ERA, and believes she has forced some other candidates to take the same position.

She is an advocate of the Humphrey-Hawkins bill that would set a national goal of reducing the jobless rate to 4 percent by 1983, and require the president to propose a plan to get there.

She blames a large part of price inflation on defense spending and oil imports and as a result favors the Mc-Govern-Mitchel Itransfer of $11.8 billion from the defense budget to domestic programs and she calls for conservation and solar energy development. She believes nuclear power has been pushed beyond the limits of safe technology. "I'm a 'no nukes is good nukes' person," she said.

Crater considers herself the "party's strongest candidate" against the Republicans but also recognizes that no one gives her the slightest chance of winning the nomination. She concedes she will be lucky to get any publicly-committed delegates to the convention as a result of city and county mass meetings Saturday. Party rules require a candidate to have 20 per cent of those attending any one meeting to be entitled to delegates votes. Crater unsuccessfully opposed that rule.