Ask Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton what decisions he might have made differently during his two years in office, and the Republican chief executive cautiously avoids an answer, even on an off-the-record basis.

Ask him what he likes and dislikes about being governor, and he gently sidesteps.

But question him about the state's educational system or its prisons and he'll inundate the room with statistics on school enrollment and inmate population growth -- both past and future projections -- to the nearest thousand.

Midway through a four-year term, the Dalton administration is like the man himself -- undramatic, comfortable amid statistics and minutiae, plodding businesslike. Dalton presides over a state government where holding back the growth of the bureaucracy is a religion and he its chief apostle.

"He understands better than anyone what the people want . . . in Virginia," said one Dalton aide, who half-seriously says that the whole tone of the administration is "deliberately dull."

Those hoping for grand announcements, unguarded moments or a little bit of controversy often will be disappointed, the aide said, because the governor "is never going to say anything that can be seized on."

In fact, the only message Dalton is trying to get across these days is a political one. Considered one of the most partisan governors in Virginia's history, he is criss-crossing the state, making unprecedented forays into Northern Virginia and elsewhere on behalf of Republican candidates in the Nov. 6 General Assembly races.

At restaurants, kaffeeklatsches, and in country clubs, Dalton, 47, is laying before the state's voters his record, pleading for election of enough Republicans to prevent the overwhelming Democratic legislature from overturning any of his vetoes. In effect he seems to be urging the elections be a referendum on his stewardship.

"He's paid more attention to Northern Virginia than any governor we've ever had," Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) told a crowd during one of Dalton's trips north. "And he's done exactly what he said he'd do when he ran for governor."

What Dalton has done -- and what the people of the state want, the governor said in a recent luncheon interview -- "is to slow down the movement toward bigger government."

He is committed to holding down taxes, reducing the state payroll and setting an example for Virginia localities. "I'm trying to hold the tax situation as it is," Dalton said. "If local governments would do what I'm doing on the state level, we'd all be better off."

His critics claim that approach means skimping on vital programs and services for Virginia residents, but the governor thinks that by the time he took office the era of state government growth had ended.

"If I had been governor in the mid-'60s -- when Virginia was between 40th and 50th in everything -- I would have had to try to put it on the move," Dalton said. "But by the time I got to be governor, I viewed the role and where we needed to go differently."

The governor now says he wants the income tax and sales tax "to stay where it is," a position that has rankled Northern Virginia legislators of both parties who are looking anxiously for state money to fund Metro.

Although Dalton keeps saying he has an open mind on the question of how to pay for Metro transit operations, he has consistently aired his opposition to a regional proposal that would require a 1-cent increase in the state's 4-cent sales tax.

Rattling off budget and population statistics until his listeners' eyes glass over, Dalton cites examples of state aid to the growing needs of Northern Virginia. Currently, he says, he is devoting most of his efforts to fund a massive statewide local aid package that will "free up" $213 million for local government budgets over the next 10 years.

The governor can tell you that Northern Virginia has 20 percent of the state's population but gets 39 percent of the sewage treatment grants. He knows that the region accounts for 50 percent of the mass transit ridership but gets 75 percent of the state's modest funding for it. He can report that public school enrollment "peaked" in 1975 and that the current percentage of school-age children is up only 3 percent despite a much larger increase in the state's population as a whole.

When he is asked to describe what he likes and dislikes about his job, however, Dalton could only point to his grueling schedule as a chief drawback. If there is any one frustration, he said, it is that "there's no way you can possibly do everything everyone wants."

A millionaire lawyer and businessman who was elected to the House of Delegates in 1965, Dalton's rising political fortunes mirrored those of his party. After serving in the state Senate, he was elected Virginia's first Republican lieutenant governor in 1973. Four years later he moved into the governor's mansion after trouncing populist Henry Howell.

Today, the one-time farm boy from Radford in Southwest Virginia spends hours in his third floor State Capitol office. He keeps an exhausting pace: working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight, frequently lunching at his desk on chopped sirloin and iced tea. He hosts a steady stream of government and ceremonial visitors, is said to read and answer voluminous correspondence and leaves the state house for scores of public appearances and civic receptions.

His schedule is so full that he recently ordered aides to keep one day a week completely open to give him time to read reports, time to call and confer with advisers, time to think.

Aides say Dalton values decisiveness and is not afraid to make a decision. He is also said to be susceptible to criticism but goes to great lengths not to appear to be reacting to it.

When, for example, he came under heavy media fire for his use of a gas-guzzling state limousine, the governor issued a detailed excuse, citing security needs. But he and his wife quietly began traveling in state police cars.

A private man, he has little of the gregariousness of Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, his would-be political heir, and none of the sophisticated aloofness of Lt. Gov. Charles Robb, the likely Democratic gubernatorial hopeful.

Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) complains that Dalton "tries to take the credit for all the good things that have happened when we've [Democrats] been the ones prescribing the laws and adopting the budget."

Those who criticize Dalton's lackluster style of government, however, find him likeable enough personally, and even Brault concedes he is "a good administrator."