Henry Howell, politicking for a friend this time, came back to Northern Virginia over the weekend and took sides in what promises to be the most awkward and controversial Democratic primary among a slew of upcoming General Assembly contests.

Up from Norfolk to help kick off the re-election campaign of his friend, State Sen. Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun), Howell was the darling of a thoroughly political crowd at the Reston Golf and Country Club Saturday night.

In fact, affection for the three-time unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate and liberal standard bearer may be the only note of harmony among many progresive-mided voters who live in Loudoun and northwestern Fairfax Counties.

They face the painful dilemma of choosing between two equally progressive legislators -- Waddell and Del. Raymond E. Vickery Jr. (D-Fairfax) -- who soon will be battling each other for the nomination for the 33rd District's Senate seat in the June 12 primary.

Liberals are rare enough in Virginia, and liberal voters who support consumer and environmental issues are especially concerned to see two proponents of such legislation challenging each other in a contest only one can win.

Despite the fratricidal overtones of the race, Howell's presence was clearly a drawing card for Waddell's campaign kickoff, and the gray-haired, shrill-voiced former lieutenant governor enjoyed all the attention.

"I'm not neutral," said Howell of the 33rd District race, that has kept many Democrats on the fence so far. "Charlie Waddell is the kind of senator I want to represent me."

While quickly stressing that "I wouldn't say anything against Ray Vickery," Howell said that Waddell, a 46-year-old airline passenger service representative and two-term senator. had given "total commitment to me, and he has shown courage in the things he has worked for."

He then ticked off a list of legislaiton dealing with utility and auto repair regulaton in which Waddell "stood up for his people on the tough issues." He agreed, however, that Vickery, a 36-year-old attorney completing his third House of Delegates term, has sponsored similar regulatory measures.

"That's the way it goes," said Howell of Vickery's challenge to Waddell. "It would be nice to have Ray continue in the House, but it would have been nice also if Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy hadn't run against each other."

Howell narrowly lost to former Gov-Mills Godwin in his 1973 gubernatorial bid, then met with a significant anti-howell sentiment in 1977 that contributed to his loss to Republican Gov. John N. Dalton. Howell carried only tow of the state's 10 congressional districts then.

But it the 1973 election -- "when I came within seven-tenths of one per cent of defeating Godwin" -- that Howell points to as proof that "Virginia wants progressive leadership in government."

Although rumored to be considering a race for the state Senate, Howell said he has reached the conclusion "that I can do more on the outside than the inside" to work for progressive legislation and like-minded candidates.

Hence, his appearance on behalf of Waddell.

But others are having more difficulty deciding whom to support in the Waddell-Vickery race.

Consider, for instance, the plight of Fairfax County Supervisor Martha Pennino.

"I'm here as a neutral party," said Pennino, who attended Waddell's campaign kick-off and posed for pictures with the candidate and Howell. Pennino's fondess for both candidates is symptomatic of the difficult decisions their constitutents will have to make.

"Over the years my husband and I have worked closely with Ray Vickery and encouraged him to get involved in politics," Penn no said. "We've almost been his mentors, and we just don't desert him now."

Yet, she continued, "we all love Charlie. I feel like Sen. Waddell goes down there (to Richmond) and works for me on the issues I care about -- ERA, environment, consumer."

The whole primary confrontation, Pennino acknowledged, is causing some resentment towards Vickery "because people who like them both are sorry he's running and putting them through this."

Should the challenger then, as some have suggested, stay put?

"That's not the way Democrats do it," she said.

Waddell said a race against Vickery "is something I had hoped wouldn't happen." But he is planning to stress his constituent service, progressive stand and Senate seniority to fend off his opponent. He also is trying to raise more than the $5,000 he has spent in past elections since he expects the primary battle to be heated and costly.

"We both agree on most of the issues," Waddell conceded "The biggest issue of all probably is the fact that he's running."

What worries him mot, Waddell said, is that a bitter primary may split the Democrats before the general election Nov. 6

"Ray has six years in the House, and I have eight in the Senate," he said. "We're risking all of those years possible to a newcomer Republican."

Vickery, obviously, doesn't see the primary race in quite the same way.

"Henry Howell would be the last person on earth to say you shouldn't have primaries," said Vickery. "I don't believe incumbents have the inherent right to the job forever."

Vickery is not scheduled to announce his candidacy formally until Wednesday and was therefore reluctant to talk about the type of campaign he will wage or the issues he will stress to set the two of them apart.

"Effective leadership is definitely a factor," said Vickery. As the campaign develops, he added, it will become apparent that there is "a very real difference between Charlie and me."