In the normally sedate Virginia Senate chamber, the saintly protestations of one of its key members recently had the other senators squirming and giggling with embarrassment.

"I've never made a deal with anyone in 28 years in the Senate. . . I've never traded a vote with anyone," the lawmaker went one more and more emphatically as murmurs of disbelief and astonishment filled the room.

Barely an aisle away sat Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), feigning shock as the speaker, a political ally, thundered on. Finally, unable to contain himself, he clasped his hands together as if in prayer, rolled his eyes to the ceiling in mock horror and crossed himself.

It was vintage Hunter Andrews, the colorful and powerful General Assembly figure whose gestures can be as snickering as his acrebic vocabulary. a

"I don't have a poker face," says the Tidewater attorney who only this year assumed the role of majority leader -- ousting Fairfax Sen. Adelard L. Brault from that post in the process. At 58 and with 16 years of assembly service behind him. Andrews dominates the nation's oldest legislature by virtue of his parliamentary skills and government knowledge, his oratory force and his key committee assignments.

Known as the "Imperial Hunter" around the Capitol, Andrews is the embodiment of the Virginia gentleman. Aristocratic in bearing, somewhat foppish at times, he wields the kind of influence that can make or break legislation and that could be of use to him in his expected maneuvering for statewide office.

"He's just a take charge guy," says state Sen. William F. Parkerson Jr.

(D-Henrico), Andrews' desk mate on the Senate floor and a close friend since the two became senators together in 1964.

Andrews has earned such a reputation as an expert on state law and the assembly's rules and procedures, laments state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), "that people are reluctant to challenge him, even when he ought to be (challenged)."

Many people around here are still talking about the way Andrews and Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb tangled on the opening day of the session when Robb, the Senate's presiding officer and a fellow Democrat, was on the verge of siding with Republicans in a committee assignment dispute.

Behind closed doors, the new majority leader is said to have angrily explained "the facts of life" to the lieutenant governor, making sure that Andrews' interpretation of the rules -- which he helped write -- prevailed.

Andrews chairs the committee on election laws and will have a major say in redistricting decisions following this year's census. As the ranking member of the Finance Committee, he regularly votes against the state budget -- a crafty device that lets the chairman appoint him to the conference committee when it comes time to work out budget differences with the House of Delegates.

From his positions of power on four committees that control election laws, finance issues, judicial appointments and education (his pet speciality), Andrews has alternately favored and infuriated lawmakers from Northern Virginia -- a region he has dubbed "Upper Tidewater."

His political clout in Richmond is sure to make him a central figure in Northern Virginia's fight to get more money for Metro this session. In fact, Andrews has already begun dishing out advice on how to win that upcoming battle as he works to make peace with a region still smarting from its erosion of leadership status."

Andrews also journeyed north last week for a dinner meeting with Fairfax County Democratic officials that was designed to smooth feathers ruffled by Brault's abrupt ouster.

A stickler for organization, Andrews has used his majority leader post to streamline and speed up the assembly's tradition-heavy proceedings. He has been moving bills through the Senate with unprecedented dispatch, stage-managing even the most controversial measures so as to minimize debate.

But Andrews -- who traces his Virginia ancestry back to George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a century and more beyond -- has also moved into this bigger sphere, of influence with all his customary sass intact.

An aide, conceding Andrews can be "charming" to those he likes, warns that "he is one legislator you don't want for an enemy."

A lobbyist who has been on the receiving end of his famous cutting remarks -- and who pleaded anonymity lest the experience be repeated -- judges Andrews to have "one of the worst tempers in the assembly."

Yet William Wiley, a congressional aide who worked in Andrews' ill-fated campaign for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in 1978, says he is "the only candidate" he would ever work for again in a political campaign.

"Hunter has a quick wit and a saber tounge," says Wiley. "I would have loved to have heard him debate John Warner.

"It depends on what your experience with him has been," says Del. Elise B. Heinz (D-Arlington, Alexandria), recalling a time when Andrews "misread" something she said and stayed mad at me for a year."

"Hunter," she says, "is very bright and very arrogant, and he has no use for people who are stupid -- though he's perfectly willing to use them."

Andrews, who has never had an opponent in his assembly races since he unseated an incumbent Democrat in a 1968 primary, acknowledges an ambition to run for governor, lieutentant governor or perhaps U.S. senator again. He says his last statewide race helped him make a lot of friends and contacts.

He admitts to having a temper, saying he will express my thoughts -- that's my nature -- and then its behind me." He has tried, though, to tone down his sarcastic humor now that he is majority leader.

Gone this session, at least are his joking references to "Napolean" and "Chuckle Bird," Andrews' nicknames for the short and occasionally imprerious Brault and for Robb, Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law and the likely 1981 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. But Andrews has yet to drop his gleeful moniker for Mitchell, who may forever be known as "Jaws" becasue of his penchant for talking on the Senate floor and to the press.

Mitchell, for his part, reminds reporters of Anrews' legendary feuds with the media -- recalling how he once warned the Senate to "never trust a priest, a prostitute, a polecat or a publisher."

Andrews has long aligned himself with the body's more conservative members, usually defending the established order in the assembly. When the conservatives fell from power four years ago, he was not invited to the meeting of moderates and liberals that laid the groundwork for Brault's selection as majority leader.

"But he's a pro." says Senate clerk Jay Shropshire, who marvels at the way Andrews "got out and hustled" to revive his grip on the legislature. Adept at fusing together the various geographical and philosphical factions in the Senate, Andrews "had the votes" in the caucus meeting last December to take over.

Despite the conservative label, Andrews is considered a progessive on many issues, especially education. He came to the Senate following a long stint as chairman of the Hampton school board where he fought to keep schools open to blacks during the era of massive resistance to court-ordered integration. He also worked as John Kennedy's manaer in that city.

He has long supported the Equal Rights Amendment, worked to reestablished and toughen up the state's educational standards and compulsory school attendance and eventually persuaded last year to buck assembly opposition establish a law school in Northern Virginia.

Still, Andrew has had a couple of celebrated disputes with Common Cause over its efforts to open up the assembly's and other government actions to more public scrutiny and high standards of ethical conduct. He says the legislature has a right to control its own rules under the consititution.

Andrews occasionally tries to downplay his patrician images, pronouncing with a flourish that "every Virginian is an aristocrat."

Besides, he claimed recently, the Founding Fathers would be considered "too radical" by the Old Dominion's standards today.

"Jefferson," Andrews teased "would be thrown out of the General Assembly if he were still around, and Patrick Henry would be drawn and quartered."