In any state less wedded to the politics of memory, the news would have drawn a yawn: former Rep. Watkins M. Abbitt, onetime veteran chairman of the state Democratic Party, was endorsing Andrew P. Miller, the party's nominee for the U.S. Senate.

But in Virginia, where the past is always present and Democrats have many hues, Abbitt's endorsement was news indeed.

It signaled a restless stirring in the hinterlands among the baronies of old-line conservative Democrats who frequently have supported Republicans in recent elections and who, it now appears, might not all vote this fall for Miller's Republican opponent, John W. Warner.

The Abbitt endorsement was a major offensive in the annual battle of the lists, a campaign ritual uniquely Virginian and largely incomprehensible to the unordained.

Where a politician in a mainstream state - like New York or California - might seek out and publicize the endorsement of a Leonard Bernstein or a John Wayne, those in Virginia will trumpet the embrace of, say, Elmon T. Gray.

Gray who also endorsed Miller last week, may not spring readily to the mind of every apartment dweller in Springfield, but to the political tealeaf readers of the Old Dominion it is pregnant with meaning.

A taciturn Democratic state senator from Waverly in Virginia's ham-and-peanut Southside, Gray served in 1976 as state finance chairman for Independent U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., whose father, U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., once ran the state.

And Gray's father, Garland, from whom Gray inherited his Senate seat, served long and loyally as a trusted lieutenant of the senior Byrd, from whom Harry Jr. inherited his.

Miller's father, the late Francis P. Miller, was one of Virginia's most out-spoken opponents of the Byrd regime.

When the elder Byrd was alive any candidate endorsed by the elder Gray was presumed to have the Byrd blessing. Virginia politicians, like nervous generals in a Central American coup, hastened to get in line.It was not considered prudent in Virginia to ignore the signals.

Though Byrd Sr. died in 1966, the endorsement scramble marches on unabated 12 years later, with each candidate hoping to appear, through his endorsees, as the anointed keeper of the nounced that the coalition of flame.

Thus Republican Warner an "Republicans, independents and - yet, those all-important Democrats" are uniting behind his candidacy, and enlisted former Byrd Democrat (and ex-governor Mills E. Godwin to stump for his candidacy. Godwin is now a Republican.

Republican John N. Dalton, in his race for governor last year, produced a list of Byrd Democrats and former legislators so exhaustive it sent 30-year veterans of Virginia politics back to their reference books.

"I thought most of these guys had been dead for years," said one Richmond reporter last year.

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When they can't find live Byrd Democrats for their lists - and as the years go by it's getting harder - Virginia office seekers get as close as they can. Miller, in the list he released last week, included William F. Stone, Jr. of Martinsville, whose father and namesake - a Byrd stalwart for decades - died in 1973. He also enlisted Mrs. Charles R. Fenwick, widow of an Arlington state senator who for many years was a link between Northern Virginia politicians and the Byrd organization.

Sometines the timing of the endorsements can be crucial.

Miller's endorsers include Hugh M. Jenkins, a Prince Edward County supervisor who led that locality's long fight in the 1960s to keep its schools closed in the face of court-ordered desegregation. Also included is former Del. Samuel E. Pope of Southampton County, who once sponsored a bill to forbid racially integrated sports.

With supporters like that the Miller campaign did not release the list until Miller had captured the endorsement of the Crusade for Voters, the state's most influential black voter organization. Miller staffers were not happy when the name of Abbitt - a longtime foe of civil rights legislation - leaked out prematurely.

Not all those on the Miller list are archconservatives. The names include those of former U.S. Reps. Thomas B. Fugate of Southwest Virginia, Thomas N. Downing of Newport News, and Porter Hardy of Chesapeake, and former Gov. Colgate W. Darden Jr., who were generally regarded as moderates during their active political life.

Former Democratic national committeeman Sidney S. Kellam of Virginia Beach, another Miller supporter, carried the state for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 - the only time the Democratic party's presidential nominee carried Virginia in the last 30 years.

Many Miller backers, however, have actively supported Republican presidential candidates ever since Sen. Byrd Sr.'s "golden silence" in 1952 steered the state toward Republican Dwight Eisenhower and a tradition of split tickets.

In the years since there have been lists of "Democrats for Nixon," "Democrats for Goldwater," and "Democrats for Ford." One Miller supporter - former State Sen. John J. Wicker, 85, of Richmond - was ahead of his time: He organized "Democrats for Wilkie" in 1940.

Within the past decade, amid leftward lurches of the Democratic party, the ticket splitting has spread to state elections as well. Several members of the Miller list - including former Judge W. H. Overby of Rustburg, former Del. Walther Fidler of Sharps, former Fairfax sheriff John E. Taylor and former state Sen. Leroy Bendheim of Alexandria - were included in a separate list of "Democrats for Dalton, (Charles) Robb and (Edward) Lane," a group that backed conservatives in last year's general elections.

Just how much all this means is open to question. In an age of million-dollar multi-media campaigns and consultants, nobody really knows who pays attention to the names that most Virginians no longer remember.

But at least one highly-placed Republican Gerald Ford carried the state in 1976 was the last minute strategic placement at key Southside polling spots for a poster showing Ford with former Gov. William M. Tuck of Halifax.

Tuck, who is now 82, used to shoot off pistols in the Capitol Square, flirt with a hillbilly singer named Sunshine Sue, and lambaste anything that smacked for labor unions racial integration or civil rights. He also served in Congress, but to most of his supporters that was sort of an afterthought.

Tuck is not on the Miller list and so far he hasn't been on any Warner list. Whoever has him, though, is probably just biding time.

In Virginia politics you always keep your big name under wraps until you need it.