When Virginia politicians start placing bets on this year's gubernatorial race, two names come up as winners every time: Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, a Republican, and Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, a Democrat. Both men are odds-on favorites for winning their parties' nominations.

Recently, Garrett Epps, a contributing editor to The Washington Post Magazine, talked to Coleman and Robb about their accomplishments, their political philosophies and their goals for Virginia. What do you care about most?

The criminal justice system -- the idea that here you can take a man-made law and cure problems that don't seem susceptible to solution.

I really have confidence, and I have become more sure of this as I go along, that reforming the sentencing is as significant a contribution as we can make in our corpus of law in Virginia. You have a system where 90 percent of the resources are spent in determining guilt or innocence and we do an excellent job of that . . . but when you get to sentencing, it's more or less a no man's land.

Federalism is at the essence of American democracy. The states do have a role to play within this system that is exceedingly important. The Brandeisian wisdom [is] that each state can serve as a laboratory of experimentation, and if [a state] resolves something in a novel and interesting way it's not at peril to the nation, and if it doesn't work it can be abandoned. But if you craft a national solution to any problem, you've got a continental mistake looming out there if you do the wrong thing.

What I'd like to see is a sort of two-tiered system of government; that is, increased activity of the government doing the peoples' work at a level close to the people, in which we see the states being fully recognized not just as administrative arms of the federal government but as governing entities.

The federal government has a multitude of responsibilities and we don't have to see those taken away. It's the guarantor of individual liberties against encroachment by any of the 50 states. But I do think that there needs to be more trust in the states.

The states can't sit out there and say 'this far and no further,' and then do nothing -- because there are terrific responsibilities that the states have. We're the natural protectors of the public against violence. We need to maintain a transportation system, educate the young people and all these things. They're not war and peace issues, but they're extremely important, and I think that's where the action's going to be in the '80s. What would you like to be remembered for?

I don't think politicians make issues, I think the public makes issues. I would like to be a person in public life who was able to respond well to the needs put before the government. But I'm very optimistic about what is possible. I still believe that our government institutions are able to do good things because I don't believe there has ever been a challenge or an obstacle put in our way that we weren't able to deal with.

I'd like to be remembered as someone who, as Holmes said, 'shared in the passion of his times.' I think one of the passions now is that government, which has been a great instrument of reform and of health, opening the continent to commerce, promoting individual liberties, trying to make men happy -- which is what Jefferson and the others felt -- can now be reformed to a new mood. The new mood is that we have to make do with what we have. That means that while we're in this period of fiscal conservatism, we can't put our critical faculties into mothballs.

I think you can pick certain areas -- like corrections, transportation, education -- and recognize that the status quo may serve us in many areas, but in many [other] areas . . . if we don't keep up with events, they'll control us. Early in his administration, Gov. John N. Dalton negotiated a settlement of a prolonged dispute with the federal government over desegregation of the state's colleges and universities. The controversial agreement ended the state's policy of resisting federal integration demands at all costs and required the state to end any vestiges of a dual college system.) One of the most controversial things since you became attorney general was the college desegregation case. What would you like to say about your role in the case?

It's true that Virginia has had a history of fighting on racial issues and we didn't in this case, and I think that's to the good.

There has [been] second-guessing about it. Anytime you resolve something short of litigation, you're going to have differing views about how it would have come down.

I know one thing; it would probably still be in litigation and still be hanging over our heads. The Dalton administration was not left with this problem to intrude at every hand for the next four years.

We're still drawing the line. I don't think anybody was anxious -- no, I take that back -- a lot of people felt that we shouldn't have drawn the line [in this case] because of all that betokened. But you couldn't take the approach that because it was a racial issue you had to cave in.

I think it represents a very businesslike approach, recognizing that state government was committed to the proposition that discrimination could not be tolerated under state law. And while nobody likes the idea of the federal government tinkering with these local institutions, you had to take into account the real world. You settle a lot of cases and you are not going to pick out racial questions to fight over.

It is a departure in the sense that a highly visible confrontation was settled short of litigation. We're still drawing a lot of lines with the federal government. We've still got a lot of cantankerousness relative to the federal government. A lot of people express unease with you and say they aren't sure where you stand on the issues. Why do you think that is?

Maybe that's because I'm not 100 percent in anybody's ideological prism. I really think that mine has been a thorough and authentic conservative record on the matter of federal intrusion, of fiscal restraint and economy.

My voting record [as a state senator] is an open book; it's of a piece. I don't think there've been these starts and stops.

I think the question of individual liberties or the racial question . . . that's perfectly consistent with a conservative philosophy.

The fact that under the law all men are equal, all women are equal, I don't think that's inconsistent. I think it can be justified and thoroughly justified, and at length, along conservative lines.

Obviously, the question is what do you want to conserve? Obviously, you want to conserve the best things about Virginia. My philosophy shows that. There may be questions of style, questions of a new generation. People may not be able to stereotype me as quickly, but I think if you look at the record, you will find that it is a consistent one, certainly by my lights. Are you going to be able to raise the money you need to finance a modern campaign?

If I am the Republican candidate [for governor], I will be running with the blessing of quite an impressive cast of characters -- nine Republican congressmen, a Republican senator, a Republican governor, in harmony and linkage with the new Republican administration. The people of the country have reposed so much trust in a Republican administration; their incentive to dispossess the Republicans in Richmond, I think, is going to be minimized. So I think the financing will reflect what I think will be a very viable campaign. Are you, and Virginia Republicans, comfortable with the Reagan administration?

The Virginia Republican Party is more in harmony with the national Republican Party than it's been in the last 50 years. The things that drive and activate this new administration are a lot of the things that we've been talking about in Virginia for quite some time.