Linwood Holton had just been asked how he felt he would be spending his time in the few days left before the Republican convention picks a candidate for U.S. Senate next weekend in Richmond.

With the air of a veteran politician, which the former governor is, a mixture of resignation and teeth-gritting determination, he cocked his fingers as though pointing a gun at the turquoise blue telephone sitting like a plump pigeon, Pow.

It's that time again. For mind-numbering hours between now and Friday Holton and fellow candidates John Warner, Richard Obenshain and Nathan Miller will be punching their push-button telephones, trying to reach as many as possible of the 7,800 or so people scheduled to attend the convention.

Shoring up support, trying to convince the uncommitted, locking up as many commitments as possible, the candidates will be crisscrossing the state through the telephone wires.

Working the phones is crucial at this point, the candidates and their managers say, because there is no clear first-ballot victor. Although Obenshain claims about 1,200 delegates, more than any other candidate, he still needs more than 300 more to win.

And so the other day, Obenshain's schedule had him on the phone between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. - with a note to bring him a sandwich at 12:30.

Holton likewise, was glued to the telephone.

"Betty? Linwood. Fine. Things are winding up . . . I hope you've decided you can help me. Really? Yes, we've got some goods ones. I appreciate that. Look, it's important that we win this one . . . Betty, all of the objective measurements, the polls, the editorials, the news stories, all say Holton is the one who can win in November . . . Listen Hon, if you're conservative, let me tell you this - who has the only campagin in 1978 that doesn't have a deficit? I haven't borrowed any money, money . . . Right, okay. You think on it. Great to talk to you."

Holton put down the receiver and gave his report: "She says she hasn't made up her mind. she says Miller is for the future and we're fortunate we have three candidates as good as we have." On to the next.

Eleven miles from former governor Holton's cramped Arlington headquarters is a shag-carpeted suite in Alexandria where John Warner is going through a similar routine: his somewhat studied phrases are a contrast to Holton's folksy drawl.

"Is this John McCall? This is John Warner, candidate for Senate. I was just wondering if you have any particular questions as we approach the eve of the convention. Mmmhmm. Mmmhmm . . . I don't know what Nathan Miller will do. I respect you for that giving Miller a vote of confidence for the future. So your second vote becomes the important one . . . I would be delighted to take the time to talk to your wife and daughter. (Both are delegates too.) . . . So your name is Barbara Warner? You're kissing me! And you have a son named John. Isn't that interesting! . . . With the good fortune of being in the Senate someday I want him to come and have his picture taken with me . . . So you and your mother are going to vote for me. Yes, he's a cute man, Nathan Miller is a cute man. I'm a little longer in the tooth than he is . . . Maybe you and your mother can work on your father a little. It's been wonderful talking to you too . . ."

While Warner talked to the McCalls, who are insurance agents in Tazewell, his wife's secretary called. An aide told her that Warner would call Elizabeth Taylor back. (He did).

Obenshain has been holed up in his Richmond headquarters phoning away about eight hours a day; his wife Helen has an extension of one of the campaign's two WATS lines in their home and is calling too. Miller works out of his law office in Harrisonburg as well as a campagin office, making calls in between practicing law.

"The monotony of dialing can get to you," Miller said. "Once you get someone on the line at least you have someone to talk to."

"You get a lot of DA's," said Holton. DA means "Doesn't answer."

They get DA's and busy signals and people in meetings or out to lunch, or working in the yard, or eating dinner, just like telephone solicitors.

"That's what politicking is, selling," Holton said. "When I first started out we did door-to-door. That's more fun. But the telephone saves so much time. And most people today are relaxed with a phone. A lot of 'em are impressed that you take the trouble to call them yourself."

Holton explained his evaluation of the various responses he gets: "'Good luck,' doesn't mean a commitment." he said. "'I'll do what I can do means they're wavering. 'Governor, I'll really do anything I can for you' - that's a commitment."

Of the about 7,800 delegates and alternates going to Richmond next week, there are only 3,081 votes. one vote can be divided among several people. This is why the counts of delegate strength vary from candidate to candidate (both Holton and Warner claim to be in second place after Obenshain; none of the candidates predicts a first-ballot victory.) Intelligence on a particular delegate's position comes from local campaign coordinators.

Holton, for example, had made about 150 calls by early Wednesday afternoon."I did not come in early today," he said, "The garden had so many weeds . . . If I don't get them now, my peas will be gone?"

"I am so tired of Linwood's peas!" Warner said later when asked how long he'd been working. "Please put in that I am the only legitimate farmer in this race. We were at a meeting in Wytheville one night when he got up and started talking about planting his peas. I go up and said "Well, I've sown the seeds of victory.' Cut him right down . . . We tease each other," he added.

By the end of next week, everyone but Obenshain (who is already there) will have moved their campaigns to Richmond. Meanwhile, day in and day out, "politicking" goes like this:

"Hello, is George Fitzgerald there? Call back after 5? I'll do that."

"Richard Brownmiller please . . . Do you know when he'll be back? Thanks."

"Is this Gene Watson? Ah, Phyllis, how are you? This is John Warner. How's politics down there? Looks good for me?That's great. I'm delighted. The chicken house is fine . . . Liz is just fine. Her bursitis is cleared up now. You send her your love I'll tell her . . ."