A picture caption in early editions of yesterday's Post incorrectly stated that former Virginia governor Mills E. Godwin had attended a meeting of businessmen in Richmond discussing whether to support State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman's race for governor. As the accompanying story noted, Godwin did not attend the meeting.

In an executive dining room of the United Virginia Bank building here, more than a dozen of Virginia's wealthiest businessmen met discreetly last month to discuss their most pressing political concern -- the making of the next governor of Virginia.

As white-aproned maids removed the lunch dishes and poured coffee, the conversation quickly focused on one question: what to do about J. Marshall Coleman, the brash, self-confident Virginia attorney general who has a virtual lock on next year's Republican nomination.

Many of those present repeated their long-held fears that the 38-year-old Coleman was too young, too liberal and too ruthlessly opportunistic to be trusted with the state's highest office, a position that until recently they could be assured of filling with the candidate of their choosing. Without their support and, more importantly, their money, they knew Coleman would have a difficult time defeating his likely Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb.

Last summer at the first meeting of "the coalition," as the businessmen called their group, they had agreed to give Coleman more time to prove himself. But they continued to search for a possible alternative.

At their meeting last month it was apparent that, although Coleman had failed to ease their doubts, many believed it was too late to stop him from getting the nomination. There was, most agreed, no one who could stop him.

The fact that the meeting ended without resolution illustrates Coleman's strength in checkmating any GOP rivals. That the meeting was held at all suggests the serious political liabilities Coleman has yet to overcome.

And the fact that the meetings have been a tightly-held secret among a small group of conservative bankers, laywers and businessmen illustrates the unseen forces that still play a crucial role in selecting the winners and losers in Virginia politics.

"The coalition is really a uniquely Virginia phenomenon," says former Fairfax Del. Wyatt B. Durrette Jr., a Republican who is seeking its support in his own bid to succeed Coleman as attorney general. "Although they've mostly backed Republicans in recent years, most of these men still think of themselves as independents. No Republican can take their support for granted -- you have to earn it."

After Ronald Reagan's Virginia landslide, Republicans would appear to be the unquestioned favorites to capture all statewide posts next year over state Democrats dazed and weakened by a decade of defeats. But virtually all of the GOP's recent winners, including Gov. John N. Dalton, former Gov. Mills E. Godwin and U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, had "the coalition" in their corner. So far at least, Coleman doesn't.

"Marshall needs these people," says Edward S. DeBolt, one of the state's leading GOP political operatives and a man with close ties to the group. "He needs their money and the instant credibility that their support gives his candidacy. It's very difficult for a Republican to win without them."

Or as another GOP insider put it: "Marshall can raise maybe a million dollars on his own and maybe $3 million with these guys and that's what it's all about."

The spiritual leader of the coalition is Godwin, the former Byrd Organization Democrat who switched to the Republican Party in the early '70s and brought thousands of conservative Democrats with him. Godwin himself professes a modest role in the coalition, saying he is "not necessarily a member . . . but I am to some extent knowledgable of their thinking."

Godwin characterizes the group as "a loosely knit group of like-minded people who want to see responsible people elevated to public office." About the 1981 race, all the former governor will say is "Nothing is set in concrete yet."

As he is quick to point out, Godwin did not attend last month's secret session at the bank. But he did attend an Oct. 16 meeting at State Republican headuarters here. That group heard pollster William A. Royall present results of a telephone survey showing that some of the men thought to be viable alternatives to Coleman lacked the name-recognition to mount a credible campaign.

Some of Godwin's closest political allies attend both sessions, including Richmond lawyer Fred G. Pollard, who was lieutenant governor during Godwin's first administration; insurance executive J. Smith Ferebee, a major conservative fundraiser, and W. Roy Smith, a pharmaceutical executive and former Democratic state legislator. They and others involved in the coalition refused to comment about the meetings.

"It's not secret," insisted stockbroker and former Richmond city councilman Henry Valentine, who attended the bank meeting. "But I won't discuss it."

The strong dislike that many of the coalition's members hold for Coleman dates back to his 1977 campaign, when he shifted to the right to outmaneuver Durette for the GOP nomination for attorney general, then moved left to beat conservative Democrat Edward Lane in the general election.

Some coalition members were incensed when Coleman attacked Lane, a friend of many of them, for his support of the segregationist Massive Resistance movement in the late 1950's. And they believed that Coleman's endorsement by the Virginia Education Association made him soft on collective bargaining for public employes and the state Right-to-Work law -- two litmustest issues for Virginia conservatives.

While Coleman has not been invited to any of the secret sessions, he concedes he is well aware of the dislike that some of the businessmen hold for him. He insists that his critics suffer from "a misperception of my record, which I believe is an authentic conservative, Republican record."

Coleman denies it publicly, but many here believe that most of his last year in office has been spent trying to placate the Main Streeters, as Richmond business leaders are known. During that time, Coleman has filed suit against the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a conservative bogeyman, challenged federal minimum wage standards for migrant workers and federal strip mining laws, and joined Dalton in suing the city of Richmond to void its union-dues check-off program. Coleman also forced the resignation of one of his chief assistants, Joseph W. Kaestner, whose aggressive antitrust section had given businessmen fits.

But none of these moves have erased the businessmen's doubts, and indeed, some appear to have backfired because many coalition members believe they are not sincere. So Coleman has made pilgrimages to almost every coalition member, seeking his endorsement. Almost none have turned him down directly, but few have promised to support him.

"No one wants to tell Marshall no to his face, because no one wants to be singled out as the bad guy in case he actually is elected," says one Republican.

But behind Coleman's back, coalition members have desperately sought to find an alternative. The list of candidates they have discussed includes Durrette, U.S. Reps. J. Kenneth Robinson and M. Caldwell Butler, state Sen. Elmon Grayformer Rep. John Marsh, onced a close adviser to President Ford -- and longshot -- U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.

Most of the alternatives have rejected any overtures -- "emphatically" said Durrette of his refusal, saying Coleman had enough support to crush any GOP opponent. As for Gray, who expressed interest in running, the Royal survey showed that outside of their home districts, both he and Robinson were unknowns.

The coalition also considered conceding the GOP nomination to Coleman and running a conservative independent. But they quickly backed off when they realized a third candidate might stimulate Norfolk populist Henry Howell, a three-time gubernatorial aspirant and conservative anathema, to run as an independent himself.

Coleman also has problems with the New Right, whose leaders so dominated Ronald Reagan's state campaign headquarters that one leader joked that when election day ended, their "Reagan for President" sign might be flipped over to reveal "Anybody But Coleman" on the other side.

That hasn't happened, although the New Righters are still upset with Coleman's stands on the Equal Rights Amendment (he's for it) and abortion. On the latter issue, Coleman appears to be backtracking. While six months ago, his chief political aide, Anson Franklin, said Coleman did not favor an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, Coleman said earlier this week he has taken no stand on the issue.

With the confidence of both the coalition members and the New Right swelled by last week's stunning Reagan victory, both groups are said to be reconsidering whether they can dump Coleman. The betting by acknowledged political pros such as DeBolt and Durrette is that the movement will eventually peter out and that Coleman will make peace with both camps.

"Marshall has a lot of ground to make up," concedes DeBolt, who says Coleman has approached him about helping operate the campaign -- an offer DeBolt says he is still pondering. "But he's trying very very hard."

Coleman's opponent is the conservative Robb, who has stayed right of the political center in an acknowledged effort to attract conservative support or, at least, neutrality.

Still, if the conservatives do try to dump Coleman at next summer's state GOP convention at Virginia Beach, they run the risk of wrecking the finely tuned machinery that has made the state party one of the nation's strongest.

Said one local Republican leader, "These guys are pragmatists and they know that if they try to get Marshall, there's going to be blood flowing all the way out to the ocean at Virginia Beach."