Republican John William Warner campaigns around Virginia, he campaigns as a national leader, tested in the fires of international diplomacy and the pressures of life at the top.

He has served as under secretary and secretary of the Navy, headed the bicentennial commission and negotiated, as he likes to say, "eyeball to eyeball with the Soviets."

"Meeting him," says a campaign flier, "your first impression is of confidence - the quiet confidence that comes from a lifetime of hard work done well . . . "

Warner mentions his experience in almost every speech. It is his experience in Washington, he says, that has equipped him for the Senate. He has made it an issue in the campaign.

Yet Warner's Washington experience has received mixed reviews. Warner's fans say it demonstrates his greatest strengths. His critics say it shows his greatest weaknesses.

Former Defense secretary Melvin Laird, who describes himself as "a long and close friend" of Warner said Warner was an outstanding administrator" who did "an absolutely outstanding job" as secretary of the Navy.

Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, on the other hand, who served as chief of naval operations under Warner, and was himself the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Virginia in 1976, calls Warner a "dilettante" who never did his homework" and was plagued by a "chronic inability to make decisions."

Interviews with more than a dozen people who worked closely with Warner in the Navy Department and bicentennial commission produce a portrait of a man filled with contradiction and ironies including sharp differences over his accomplishments and his abilities.

To his supporters, who include Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz), retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, and others, Warner was a patient, energetic, dedicated man who presided over the Navy during a turbulent time in the service's history and solved many of its problems with rare good sense.

To his critics, he was "indecisive," "a lightweight," and thoroughly political." One rear admiral who worked intimately with Warner and four other secretaries of the Navy called Warner "the worst administrator I've ever known."

But like most of Warner's critic - many of whom still have ties to the Navy - the admiral declined to speak for attribution. Some are Republicans or Navy men on duty and say they want to preserve an outward appearance of party or service loyalty. Others, while extremely skeptical of Warner's abilities in any post of responsibility, say they like him as a person.

One admiral, for example, was extremely critical of Warner's handling of racial incidents on the carriers Kitty Hawk and Constellation in late 1972, a criticism Zumwalt made in his autobiography, "On Watch."

Moorer, in a recent letter to The Washington Star, said however that Warner "supported intergration in the Navy as strongly and enthusiastically as anyone," but "found it necessary . . . to impose judgment and common sense (on the pace of change) so as not to completely collapse the morale and combat capability of our Navy."

The admiral critical of Warner said Warner's "sole concern in handling the (Constellation) incident was how it would affect the Republican presidential campaign . . . People ask me if he was the worst secretary of the Navy ever, and I say I can only speak for the past 50 years."

Warner's critics appear to fall into no single category. Some clearly had policy or ideological differences which colored their view of his performances. Others, while criticizing some aspects of his performance, gave him high marks on other points. Still others appear to have been irritated by Warner's style or manner.

"He worked hard in his way," said one person who worked with Warner in the Pentagon. "That is, he put in time at the office. But it was mostly chasing commas like lawyers do . . . He would do a lot of things for show. He would smoke his pipe in public but smoke big cigars in the office. He liked to take off his coat and show his shirt sleeves, you know, sort of one-of-the-boys macho. In the morning he would line up all his aides for a briefing and then comment on what they had to say. It was a very theatrical performance, and became something of a joke."

At the bicentennial, Warner's reviews were similarly mixed. One man who worked with him there and at first described him as "another pretty face" but went on to give Warner high marks for depoliticizing an office that had become a nest of Nixon administration zealots.

"It was so bad before Warner came," the man remembered, "that the office was virtually turned over to a Nixon propaganda effort. During the Christmas bombing (of North Vietnam) in 1972, most of the staff stopped all their bicentennial work and used the office long distance lines to drum up mail in favor of the bombing. They actually had long lists of people to call. Warner stopped all that and made it work."

The same source, while saying Warner lacked sensitivity on the racial question gave him credit for "at least making the effort" to involve blacks in the staff and activity of the bicentennial. No such effort, he said, had been made before Warner got there.

One retired naval officer who likes Warner and worked with him both in the Pentagon and in the bicentennial agency, said Warner was often the victim of his personal style, which some found pretentious.

"Asked what it was about Warner that so irritated some of the people who worked for him, one Warner aide in the Pentagon - who thought Warner did a good job - replied:

"Well, he's a dresser. He wears those English style three-piece suits and he had a lot of money and rode horses and did all the things a dilettante would do."

His reputation for indecisiveness, an admiring officer said, was brought on by Warner's "great care to get all sides of a story before making a decision . . . He is a great listener . . . careful almost to the point of frustration of those who work for him.

"At the bicentennial, he would let people come in and talk and talk and talk until I'd be ready to scream. It was really time-consuming. I wanted to throw the bums out and get on with things, but he was very patient. He let everyone have their say . . ."

The officer said Warner's willingness to listen is part of his general kindness to people - a characteristic, he said, that can also work against Warner.

"He was very mindful of the people who worked for him. Almost to a fault . . . When we went over to the bicentennial the place was a mess and there were a bunch of people I thought should be canned. It was my hard-assed Navy training, I guess. But he kept almost all of them on. And I guess they worked. But people took advantage of him."

The officer said Warner was "a good listener, a good arbitrator and in that sense he would be a good representative for the people. But how strong he would be on the initiative side . . . or coming up with any kind of breakthrough, or turning things around, well, I don't know."

One of Warner's most highly prized achievements during his years in the Pentagon was his participation in negotiations which produced the so-called "Chicken of the Sea" treaty to end the dangerous maneuvers that Soviet and American ships were employing as they shadowed each other.

Warner calls it "my personal experience at dealing eyeball to eyeball with the Soviets," and notes that he signed the treaty for the U.S. government.

But an official in Warner's office at the time said he actually had little to do with the substance of the treaty, most of which was drafted by assistants of the State Department.

Warner also would "break his back" to travel tourist class as he flew around the country, an aide said, and accepted expense money only for his plane tickets - never for his hotel and meals.

But what he and another person in the bicentennial commission remember most about Warner is his speeches.

"He had a terrific delivery and would wow 'em in Peoria," one remembers. "He was a little befuddled in the office, so we encouraged him to stay out on the stump. But you never knew exactly what he was going to say.

"Once when we opened the Franklin and Jefferson exhibit in Paris, the French ambassador or whoever he was got up and made a long and eloquent speech about America and 200 years of Franco-American friendship. It was greeted with great applause, and protocol demanded that Warner give an answering toast to France.

"Well, he got up, raised his glass and said "To the world's oldest continuing democracy - the United States' and sat down. He toasted himself!

"The French were absolutely dumbfounded. They didn't know whether to be angry or amused. But in the end they let it go because they assume all Americans are a little crazy anyway."