When Virginia State Sen. Herbert Bateman came to Capitol Square earlier this week to talk to Gov. John N. Dalton about his chances of winning the Republican Party's nomination to succeed Dalton, he got a blunt warning from his old friend and colleague.

"I told Herb his chances were one out of 10 at best and that he's got to be realistic about it," Dalton recalled today. "And I reminded him that for the last three years, only one Republican has been out asking people for their support and going to every meeting and every picnic and that's Marshall Coleman.

The governor has been having similar conversations with other Republicans and conservative independents who have sought him out in recent weeks to express their doubts about the conservative credentials of Coleman, Virginia's attorney general. In each instance, Dalton's message has been the same -- that Coleman has the nomination within his grasp and that any struggle can only divide the GOP and give Virginia Democrats a rare opportunity to recapture the governor's seat that they last won 14 years ago.

In essence, say GOP insiders, Dalton, a man who has adopted a relatively low profile as the state's chief executive, is conducting an unusually active behind-the-scenes campaign for Coleman, helping guarantee the nomination for governor and, at the same time, solidifying Dalton's position as party leader. g

"It's a very proper role for the head of the party to play," says William A. Royall, Dalton's former press secretary and close adviser. "He's not out there desperately making phone calls, but he's quietly in his own way letting people know how he feels."

"He's trying to put out the fires," says another GOP strategist, "and he's a very powerful ally for Marshall to have."

Part of Dalton's campaign has been to help quell any movement within the GOP for a primary year instead of the party's traditional nonimating convention. Anti-Coleman forces had hoped to force a primary because they believe the attorney general has already sewed up the nomination among party regulars who dominate conventions.

"Primaries are just too expensive," said Dalton in an interview today. "You end up spending your money to fight yourself. We should save it to fight the Democrats."

The governor has also helped line up some solid financial backing for Coleman's campaign. Lawrence Lewis, the millionaire Richmond financier who helped head Dalton's fundraising effort in 1977, announced yesterday he would do the same for Coleman. And today, John D. Marsh, a wealthy retired Prince William Country businessman, said he, too, had decided to help Coleman after meeting privately wit Dalton a few weeks ago.

In his meeting with Bateman, Dalton said he showed the Newport News senator recent polling data showing Coleman far in front of other GOP prospective candidates. The governor concluded the discussion by suggesting that Bateman lower his sites to the lieutenant governor's nomination, which he described as "still quite open." Bateman could not be reached for comment today.

The affinity between Dalton and Coleman appears obvious at first glance. Both are lawyers who hail from the traditionally Republican mountain region of Western Virginia. Both were outsiders whne they served in the Democrat-dominated state legislature and were GOP running mates in 1977.

But the brash, self-confident Coleman, 38, ran as a consumer-oriented political moderate three years ago, defeating a conservative Democrat by attracting votes from liberals, blacks and union supporters, while Dalton ran as a traditional conservative appealing to a very different probusiness constituency.

Nonetheless, Royall and others say the governor immediately began to think of Coleman as his inevitable successor and has done all he could behind the scenes to help, including taking Coleman along to meetings with wary conservatives. On more than one occasion, Dalton has reportedly told GOP guests at the governor's mansion that "Marshall will like it here."

"They don't sit around and watch TV together, but they are friends," says Royall. "I've heard the governor say many times that Marshall's been a good attorney general for him and a popular vote-getter and he's just the logical choice [for governor]."