The speaker looked out from his perch on the flatbed truck and welcomed the gentlemen, the "governors-to-be" and the ladies -- and he repeated the word ladies -- to the 33rd annual shad planking of the Wakefield Ruritan Club.

The presence of about a dozen women, invited for the first time, and a handful of black guests among the crowd of 4,000 were the only signs of liberalism today at what Lt. Gov . Charles S. Robb calls "the most political, nonpolitical event in Virginia."

As invitees ate bony shad and drank beer, Robb and his likely Republican opponent for governor, state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, worked their way along the dusty paths of this scenic picnic grove to press the flesh and plaster a sticker on any passing lapel.

Such is the ritual courting of Southside Virginia's conservative establishment, a politically potent group that sometimes votes Democratic, sometimes Republican, but always conservative.

"There's a lot of folks here who haven't made up their mind," said Robb, surveying the crowd whose members, with thei blue blazers and striped ties, looked more like they were attending a reunion of the University of Virginia law school than they were a fishfry in a rural town.

Like Virginia itself, the shad planking has undergone a political metamorphosis in recent years.

Once the exclusive province of members of the late Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.'s Democratic organization, the picnic became a Republican-oriented affair over the last decade as many of the organization's philosophical heirs changed to the GOP. For one four-year stretch only Republicans served as keynote speakers here.

"This is above all a conservative crowd and that means Republicans feel comfortable here," said Wyatt durrette of Fairfax, the GOP's certain attorney general nominee.

In recent years the pendulum may have begun to swing back. Last year Robb gave a rousing, hawkish, promilitary draft speech that captured the crowd and today Robb buttons seemed to outnumber Coleman's Marshall Coleman to this group has always been known as pretty much a liberal" said Robb finance director Alson Smith uttering the dirtiest word in the shad planking's political lexicon.

Nonetheless, Coleman sounded anything but liberal in a brief introductory speech to a Republican gathering at the Wakefield Inn before the picnic began. There he sounded off against early parole for "hardened criminals" and suggested that he, not Robb, would be tough on crime if elected governor.

That same theme was picked up by the planking's keynoter, former U.S. Rep. Watkins Abbitt, a Democrat who during his 25 years in Congress symbolized the prosegregation, antilabor Dixiecrat faction.

Abbitt, whose speech could have been given by a Ronald Reagan Republican as easily as by a Harry Byrd Democrat, decried the "starry-eyed, self-righteous do-gooders in the federal judiciary" who he claimed had "shackled the nation's law enforcement agencies."

Abbitt is supporting Robb and his speech had been billed in advance as a subtle attack on Coleman. It turned out to be subtle indeed except for one small jibe at "ambitious men." One supporter told Coleman after the speech, "You got off easy."

The picnic grounds and parking lots were littered with campers and pick-up trucks from almost all of Virginia's other candidates for state-wide office, who dispensed booze and buttons.

Richard Andrews, who has been the chief chef here for a dozen years, said the log fires were lit at 4:30 a.m. Two hours later the first of the 2,700 pounds of shad were nailed to the 1 x 4-foot planks lined up on either side of the fire. Before the bulk of the crowd left by sunset, they had also devoured 1,100 pounds of flounder, fried in peanut oil, and 600 pounds of rockfish.

The chef's sauce is supposed to be a secret, but Andrews said the test is to pour it on and "if it blows up, the bootleggers told us it's good to either eat or drink."

Coleman and Robb, who wore nearly identical uniforms of white shirt, striped tie and plaid suit, the coat of which is hooked expertly in the second finger of the left had, bumped into each other on one of the dusty paths leading to the speaker's area.

"Would you like one of my buttons?" Coleman asked Robb over the sound of whirring camera shutters.

Robb later joked with several men about the presence of a new convenience on the grounds, portable toilets, imported this year and thereby removing the age old excuse that women were not invited because of lack of facilities.

"Some of the good ole boys don't know how to use them yet," Robb laughed. "They don't know you're supposed to go inside, so they just go around the back."