In the past decade Virginia Democrats have suffered under a string of Republican victories. But last weekend Democrats left their state party convention here hoping that, the voters willing, the 1980s will be better.

Having just accomplished a major upheaval by ousting two liberal stalwarts of the Henry Howell era, most of the convention delegates trudged out of the cavernous city coliseum determined to prove that the emerging conservative-moderate leadership coalition will turn out to be a winning combination.

Still, there were some peculiar and contradictory scenes that seemed to suggest the Democrats don't yet have their act -- or their image -- together. And there is every indication that dumping George C. Rawlings and Ruth Harvey Charity from the Democratic National Committee won't end the leadership struggles or the tug of war over party philosophy.

Take the sight of House Speaker A. L. Philpott presiding over the convention proceedings as delegates gave their hearty approval to resolutions supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, collective bargaining for teachers, the appointment of the state's first black to the federal bench, the ouster of Virginia's Independent senior senator, Harry F. Byrd Jr., from the Senate Democratic caucus and granting full voting rights to the District of Columbia.

The powerful General Assembly leader, who backed a slate of four national committee candidates opposing Rawlings and Charity, would consider many of those resolutions just the kind of ammunition Republicans can use to charge that Democrats are out of step with most Virginia voters.

Philpott, in fact, has ignored or helped block some of those very proposals, and he managed a wry smile as he announced their approval by the convention.

The cold facts are that Virginia is a right-to-work state and the Democratic-controlled legislature has rejected the ERA eight times and has been even less enthusiastic about the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment.

Thus, while liberals seized control of the state party organization during George McGovern's 1972 presidential quest, the conservatives never really lost their influence over state policies and legislative actions. And passing a lot of so-called progressive resolutions isn't going to change that.

The new national committee members -- Del. Alan C. Diamondstein, a 13-year veteran of the House from Newport News; Del. Benjamin J. Lambert III, of Richmond, who is the first black to serve as a committeeman; Fairfax County Supervisor Sandra L. Duckworth, the only incumbent committee member reelected; and Louise W. Cunningham, a longtime party activist from Lynchburg, are considered moderates who support most of the more liberal programs associated with Howell.

They insisted last Saturday that their election did not amount to a liberal purge and that their goal would be to build a broad-based organization that would appeal to all Democrats.

"It's an issue of approach as opposed to philosophy," said Diamondstein. "We'll work with everybody, but it's our responsibility to represent the majority view."

It will also be their responsibility to help the party win elections -- and that's where the conservative, moderate and liberal forces will likely renew their party warfare.

Rawlings, a Fredericksburg attorney who lives near Lorton in Northern Virginia's 8th Congressional District, says he has no intention of abandoning the party to what he called a "rightward shift." He still serves on the State Central Committee and says he will try to use that position to keep disgruntled liberals from sitting out some crucial elections this fall and next year's do-or-die gubernatorial race.

It didn't take Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb's grand entrance as the keynote speaker to get the delegates thinking about the 1981 contest. But Robb, the party's likely nominee, probably didn't like what some of the delegates were saying.

Arriving with all the fanfare of a candidate who has just been nominated -- the band playing "Dixie," the spotlight following him up to the stage as he held his wife Lynda's hand -- Robb faced the largest gathering of Democrats he is apt to see between now and nominating time next year.

Robby's speech, delivered more forcefully than is his custom, nevertheless sounded more like a rhetoric-filled foreign policy address than a political call to arms. The man who is expected to challenge the energy-charged J. Marshall Coleman, the Republican attorney general and likely GOP nominee, quoted Jefferson, Truman, Alfred E. Smith, Andrew Jackson, Will Rogers and even Mark Twain as he called for party unity.

But he did little to excite the crowd which, considering all the hoopla at his entrance, had been primed to expect something better from the party's only statewide elected official.

A primary purpose of the convention, of course, was to complete the state delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

The Carter forces locked up 50 of Virginia's 64 national delegates compared to the 5 won by Edward M. Kennedy.

Kennedy supporters plan to press their case for more representatives in New York this August and even selected additional delegates to send should their challenge be upheld. They claim Kennedy was shortchanged some district and at-large delegates because of improper selection methods.

But in Richmond, sorely outnumbered and with Carter people firmly in control, Kennedy people talked of having a voice -- but probably not a victory -- in New York.

"We want to influence the platform of the Democratic party and maybe create some switching if there's a successful fight to permit it before the second ballot," said Tommy Baer, who heads the Kennedy drive in the Richmond area.

Whatever the outcome this summer, however, state Democratic leaders hope that after the November elections they won't be wishing for "cookie cutters," Northern Virginia's Democratic Rep. Herbert E. Harris told the convention not to expect party members to all be alike.

Lauding Democratic diversity in an official unity address, Harris -- who supported Rawlings -- left the stage shouting this message:

"Let's get together and win elections."