Despite their front-row arena seats, most of Virginia's delegates to the Democratic National Convention last week left New York wondering if they had sat through a bad play rather than the renomination of their favorite presidential candidate.

True, many were genuinely overjoyed at Jimmy Carter's triumph. But the path to that victory -- and the platform deals made to lure Ted Kennedy's support and to project an image of party unity -- had some Virginia Democrats more worried than ever about their party's prospects this November.

From the start, Virginia's delegation had been overwhelmingly pro-Carter. So, when the president's national and state campaign leaders turned on a "tough-guy" act to keep their Virginia forces in line, it almost backfired.

George Gilliam, Carter's Virginia coordinator, in laying out the president's position against the controversial "open convention" vote, provoked some of those already on his side by characterizing the issue as a loyalty test.

"The president feels, Hamilton (Jordan) feels and the vice president feels that a vote against the rule (binding the delegates) is a vote against the president," Gilliam told a caucus of Carter's Virginia supporters. "A vote for the Kennedy position (in favor of an 'open' convention) is a vote for Kennedy."

"If you say it once more, I'll take it as a threat," said George M. Hampton, a businessman and retired military officer from Woodbridge.

The remark was meant to make the delegates laugh and to dissolve some of the tension in the room. But it failed to appease an already angry state Sen. Peter K. Babalas, a Carter delegate from Norfolk who publicly supported both the president and the idea of an open convention.

"If they pressure us, and if they threaten, you're going to see an open rebellion," Babalas warned on the day of the crucial Carter-Kennedy showdown. "The president has the votes, and I don't know why he's so nervous. I wouldn't want to go through the record to see how many times he's changed his mind on things."

The open rebellion never came, of course.A couple of delegates -- Babalas not among them -- were hastily summoned off the convention floor later that night and lectured by Carter operatives about the danger of flirting with the open-convetion movement. In the end, only Babalas, one other Carter supporter from Norfolk and the state's five Kennedy delegates stuck with the Kennedy position.

And in the very end -- when it came time for choosing the party's nominee -- only the five Kennedy delegates stuck with the Massachusetts senator. Virginia, as expected, gave its other 59 delegate votes to Carter.

Fortunately for Carter, the Virginians did not get a chance to vote individually on several other key convention questions. Because of a Carter-Kennedy agreement that adopted these positions but spared the necessity of a roll-call vote, the world will never know how Virginians felt about a $12 billion jobs program, use of federal funds for abortions or a tougher stance on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The world will never know -- but anyone familiar with the Old Dominion's conservative voting traditions can guess.

Virginia party leaders were saying privately that Democrats are going to have a tough time running on the party's platform in their state. With Virginia already stigmatized as the only southern state Carter didn't carry in 1976, these same party leaders said they didn't think events in New York City had made things any easier for the president this time around.

State party chariman Richard J. Davis talked bravely about how the Democrats were better organized than four years ago, and of how he was "frightened to death" of having Ronald Reagan in the White House. But there were plenty of conservative Virginia Democrats in New York who just rolled their eyes or laughed outright when they were asked about Carter's chances of taking their state.

This left the president getting hit from both sides of Virginia's political spectrum. Once the question of Carter's nomination was settled, attention naturally was focused on the small Kennedy contingent in the delegation. And it was clear that the primary and convention battles had left some of Kennedy's most loyal followers drained of any inclination to work for Carter's re-election

"Carter's manipulated this party," Thomas G. Stewart, a Kennedy delegate from Annandale, said bitterly. "He's used this party, and done anything to get the nomination."

Carter needs to carry Northern Virginia if he is to take the state, and needs the campaign help and support of both Kennedy and Carter workers if he is to have any hope of carrying the region. Recognizing this, Carter's campaign officials in the state made a special appeal to the Kennedy delegates, praising them for dedication to their candidate and urging them to become just as active in Carter's campaign.

But several Kennedy people said they were still reeling from what they called the geavy-handed tactics of the Carter camp.

"The trouble is that one minute they hug us and the next minute they slug us," complained Cecily Coleman, a Kennedy delegate from Alexandria.

Another Kenndy delegate, Penny Rood of Fairfax City, said she was optimistic that convention passions soon would subside and that Kennedy followers would not sit on their hands and let Reagan become president.

FOOTNOTES: Some of Carter's most ardent supporters among the Virginia Democrats did not stay around in New York to hear the president's speech Thursday night. They left town early, saying they could not afford convention life in the Big Apple

Ed Herlihy, a Carter coordinator in Fairfax County, stayed through the last day, but decided to economize by begging the use of couches from friends who had hotel suites. It proved an expensive decision. Without guest space at the hotel, he had to park his car on the street, where it was burglarized and his tape deck stolen within a day.

Among the Carter delegates on the floor that last night, it was clear their hearts were with the president. But their eyes were on the podium as they waited for Kennedy to join other Democrats in what they expected to be an exciting demonstration of unity. Kennedy's stiff-necked and unsmiling presence, once he finally arrived, was a disappointment.

"It was like waiting for dessert," one Carter backer complained, "and then getting a sour pickle."