Although a newspaper poll says most Virginians have made up their minds on the issue, the campaign over whether to legalize betting on horse races in the state has become a pitched - and sometimes nasty - battle.

It is a campaign being waged in sneers, insults, rumors, formal debates and in the best of the state's traditions, focuses on the question of what Virginia is, or should be.

Race track gambling would defile the state's image, the opponents are arguing. "We love and respect Virginia - and it's a mystery to us why some people are working so diligently to make it more like those states less worthy of respect and love than the State of Virginia," said an antigambling mailing from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Virginia Dabney and others.

Gambling, counter the race track advocates, as Smithfield ham and peanut soup. After all, they say, wagering was a favorite pastime of Virginia's colonial heros.

On Sunday both sides are staging pleas to voters. Ministers have been asked to speak out against the parimutuel proposal in their sermons, while supporters of the measure are holding open houses at 14 horse farms to show that the horse industry is "clean."

Getting the issue before the voters in the Nov. 7 elections has been a major accomplishment in itself. The proponents managed to pry the referendum bill out of the legislature last winter by one vote after a 10-year effort.

If the voters approve of race track wagerign they predict an economic bonanza for the state: 13,000 new jobs, $25 million in tax revenue and a renaissance for the state's famous horse breeding industry, plus a sport that proponents say draws more spectators that football, baseball or basketball.

"Before the Civil War we had 30 race tracks in Virginia," says Prince William County horse breeder John D. Marsh. "They shipped the horses to Kentucky to keep the Yankees from gettin' 'em and we never really got 'em back."

This optimistic view is challenged by a host of opponents who include such figures as former governor Mills E. Godwin, former state senator Arminstead L. Boothe of Alexandria, and leaders of every major church demonination in the state.

The campaign has been fueled of late allegations that the Mafai is funneling money to the gambling foes, a charge that antigambling spokesman Dennis Peterson says "I have to deny 20 times a day."

Maryland racing interests also have been accused of sending money to Virginia in hopeof scutling any competition from a race track in Northern Virginia.

Both sides have been scurrying over the state, staging debates at which there are clashes over everthing from what a four-volume fededal study on gambling says to whether the proponents have properly named themselbes.

Their name - Virginians for Horse Racing - is misleading, opponents say, because it uses the word "racing" instead of "gambling," which the opponent say is the issue before the voters.

What opponents forecast is that race tracks would bring in very little money into the state's coffers - certainly too little to justify a bumper sticker Peterson saw that promised "Vote For Horse Racing and Lower Taxes." They also see more tax money being spent on additional police investigators to cope with the new criminal temptations expected with the advent of a state regulated industry.

They also object to the state encouraging gambling and view the anticipated boost to horse breeders as special interest legislation for an elite few. Combined with the traffic a track large enough to make money would bring, the opponents view the prospect of the referendum passing as an unmitigated disaster.

Corruption of public officials in a state that permits gambling is "pratically unavoidable," their campaign fliers say. They cite as evidence both the conviction of Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel on charges growing out of a track operation and the more recent indictment of Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney William L. Cowhig on charges connected to bingo operations in the Washington suburbs.

"If we can't control a so-called 'nickel and dime' game like bingo and eliminate the temptation to bribe government officials, how do we expect to control race track gambling?" opponents ask.

Proponents - organized into Virginians for Horse Racing - are suggesting that their opposition in funded by the Mafia and that Maryland horse racing industry representatives actively are working to defeat the referendum in order to stave off competition.

C. E. Douglas, executive director of the probetting campaign also charges that individuals from Maryland - whom he will not name told him they are antiracing working with the Virginians Opposing Pari-Mutuel Gambling. State Del. Richard R. G. Hobson of Alexandria emphatically denies this charge and cites it as an example, along with the rumor of mafia money of the kind of campaign their opposition is waging.

Both sides describe their efforts as "eduction," both express fears of a last-minute media blitz by their opposition, and both say they will be outspent.

A poll taken by the Richmond Times Dispatch in September, long before the current public debate had gained much attention, showed that 54 percent of the voters polled said they would vote for the proposal. One-third were against it and 13 percent were undecided.

However, the opponents say they are encouraged by a growing list of prominent people against it, and antitrack sentiment in the populous Tidewater area, where one of the tracks would probably be built. The other track would be in northern Virginia.

The Nov. 7 referendum is the first of two referendums voters would be asked to approve before construction of a raace track could begin. If the November betting question is approved, voters in any locality where private investors want to build a track also would have to approve it in a separate election.

The opponents' alliance with churches provides not only money ($25,000 from the Methodists fo far, $10,000 from the Virginia Baptist Board) but access to such free advertising as church newspapers (the Baptist Religious Herald, for example, has a circulation of about 45,000; the Catholic Virginian 33,500).

If the opponents are able, as they hope, to tap the potential voters among Virginia's 370,000 Methodists, more than 500,000 Southern Baptist, and similarly large constituencies of Episcopalians and Catholics, they say that they have a chance of defeating the issue by a healthy margin.

Douglas charges that church offerings, which can be tax deductible, are being improperly used to fund what is essentially a political campaign.

His group has received contributions from the directors of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association ($20,000 so far with an additional $25,000 promised, Douglas said) and from horse racing and breeding interests in Delare and North Carolina.

The proponents have raised $74,600 so far; the opponents about $50,000. Both sides plan radio advertising and mailings, and plan to raise more money.

The ballot proposal also would permit up to 14 days of pari-mutuel horse racing at county fairs and local steeplechase races. "This means that every Virginian has a stake in this question," said opponent Hobson, "Not just those in Northern Virginia or Tidewater where the tracks might be built."