The only rental car he could find was a midnight blue Lincoln Mark VI with cruise control and power windows -- not the sort of thing a liberal delegate from Northern Virginia wanted to be seen driving to the state Democratic convention.

But with an ailing Impala in the repair shop, a rapidly fading liberal dream to defend, and two children eager to get to the beach, Arlington conventioneer Richard Barton couldn't afford to be picky.

"That's all I need," Barton, a Washington lobbyist committed to the lieutenent governor candidacy of liberal Ira M. Lechner had groaned. "Now I'll look like a Republican."

By the time the weekend convention was over, Virginia's whole Democratic Party looked a little more Republican. Barton's old friend Lechner had gone down to defeat, his appeals to labor, blacks, women and the underprivilged rejected in a partywide shift to the right.

For party leaders anxious for victory in November, the new worry was whether the concessions made by gubernatorial candidate Charles S. (Chuck) Robb and lieutenant governor candidate Richard J. Davis would be enough to keep liberals, who provide much of the manpower and energy for state campaigns, from bolting the party.

If the 43-year-old Barton is any indication, the party may be in luck. Today, as he lay on the beach protecting his bureaucratic pallor under an umbrella, Barton rejoiced that the carnage from the liberal-conservative showdown had not been worse.

"From the very beginning, most of us [liberals] knew we were going to lose" he said. "But that doesn't mean I'll give up on the party. I'd rather be the liberal wing of the winning party then let the Republicans win and not having a chance at all."

It is too early to tell whether other liberals will come away from the convention with similarly conciliatory feelings, but for Barton the weekend in Virginia Beach wasn't quite the disaster it might have been.

When Barton woke up Friday morning in his three-bedroom brick home in North Arlington, he systematically ticked off his chores for the day: pick up the car at the repair shop, remind the neighbor to feed the cat, pack, pick up the kids at school, drive to Virginia Beach, plunk the kids at the Holiday Inn, and arrive at the cavernous convention hall before the other 5,000-plus conventioneers had started their evening session.

He knew that the task ahead was a long shot. Lechner was still pushing his candidacy even though all the informal polls showed him trailing Davis, a Portsmouth banker whose lowkey campaign carried a distant echo of Ronald Reagan's budget philosophy.

The hierarchy of the state party was backing Davis, anxious to break a 12-year losing streak in statewide elective offices, and Barton knew that only a miracle could bring his candidate the few hundred delegates he needed to put him over the top. Frankly, he didn't expect it.

Years of close defeats had taught the state Democrats that liberal candidates just couldn't draw the votes like a solid, dull, conservative candidate in the mold of Harry S. Byrd Sr. And not only did Lechner bear absolutely no philosophical resemblance to the party's patriarch -- he was a Jew who hailed from a part of the state that most party leaders desperately yearned to give away to Maryland.

Barton had admired the bombastic Lechner for more than 10 years, since both had gotten involved in Arlington Democratic politics and Lechner had come to Barton's home for a spiced crab dinner. Clearly, his friend Ira could never pass for a Virginia gentleman. He still remembered the way Lechner had treated the dinner guests to his political pyrotechnics between trips to the bathroom sink, where he carefully washed all the spices off each crab before eating it.

Still, he thought, a strong push for Lechner at the convention would show the party leaders a thing or two. If Ira was able to make a strong showing, if he could keep his people in line, if everyone behaved -- it could remind the party's leaders that they needed liberals like himself, Democrats who drew their identities more from antisegregation marches and Vietnam protests than from the tightfisted budgeting of Harry Byrd.

By shortly after noon, the 212 miles separating Barton from the cavernous Virginia Beach convention hall was looking like thousands. What he thought was a minor problem in the Impala turned out to be a major voltage leak, incapacitating it for at least the weekend. Barton goodnaturedly applied himself to the task of locating a replacement while his two children, robbed of beach time, moped around the house.

Almost none of the delegates were in their seats when Barton arrived at the Virginia Beach convention center at 8 o'clock, half an hour after the meeting was set to begin. All around the tiny Arlington delegatation, members of the county's Democratic family were joking, peddling campaign literature and swapping gossip.

Barton paused to affix a red Robb sticker to his white LaCoste shirt, then drifted over to the room where the convention's credentials committee was still hearing the challenges that Lechner supporters saw as their candidate's only real hope.

"What's happening here?" Barton whispered to Dottie Stambaugh.

"We're getting screwed," she whispered back. Dottie's husband, Arlington state delegate Warren G. Stambaugh, was pounding his fist on the table and demanding that the committee throw out Davis delegates chosen in apparent violation of party notice requirements.

While some committee members stifled yawns, Stambaugh told them of counties where public notices for delegate selection had not been printed until after deadlines for delegate registration had passed. In three hours of hearing, the panel has not sustained a single one of more than a thousand Lechner challenges.

"What a shabby way to run an organization," Dottie whispered again.

"We're good at that, aren't we?" said Barton. Outside in the main convention hall, a strained, asthmatic voice sang "God Bless America" over the loudspeaker.

By the time the Lechner credentials challenges reached the floor, Barton was energetically circulating through the Arlington delegation, greeting all the friends he has picked up in 10 years of serving the county as a school board member, chairman of the planning commission and chairman of the county Democratic Party.

Many of the delegates from the 8th and 10th congressional districts were waving placards saying "VA for IRA," but Barton has to be reminded when to cheer with the delegation. "Oh yeah," he says, intoning "I-ra! I-ra! Ira!"

"I really never listen to any of these things," Barton explained as he stood with Arlington Sheriff Jim Gondles, comparing the alligators on their LaCoste shirts and speculating on whom the party will run for governor in 1985.

In countless conversations across the expansive convention center, the word has gone out: the credentials and rules challenges are dead. Leacher does not have a chance for the nomination. But many of the Lechner delegates still cling to hope that he may be chosen the party's new chairman, and keep up the chant. "I-ra! I-ra! I-ra!

It was past midnight when all the credentials and rules challenges were put to rest, and Lechner's campaigns for both lieutenant governor and party chairman were officially dead. Barton shuffled through the piles of brightly colored campaign literature to offer condolences to Lechner, but his mind was on the parties ahead.

"From the very beginning, most of us knew we were going to lose," he said. "There wasn't a tremendous expectation, so there can't be much disappointment."

Chuck Robb's acceptance speech was supposed to be the high point of the convention, and Barton tried dutifully to listen to it. With all the noise in the convention hall Saturday morning, it wasn't easy.

"We hole these truths to be self-evident. All men are created equal," Robb's voice booms over the loudspeaker, quoting Thomas Jefferson.

Barton wrinkled his nose. "I don't think I've ever heard a major speech in Virginia that didn't talk about Mr. Jefferson."

A few more words floated by -- "duty," "leadership," economic development."

"You add up all the political cliches, and he's got every one of them right there," agreed another Arlington delegate. Both stifled yawns.

The voice boomed again, but many in the convention hall were not listening: "Fellow Democrats, this is our year. . . ."

Most of them did listen when Leachner, composed and confident after having looked pale and wile-eyed the night before, took the podium for a fiery speech pledging his support, and his delegates' support, to Robb and Davis. Later he said he will accept a post as vice chairman of the state Democratic Party, a move that will establish him as the party's resident liberal voice.

The eventual nominations of Davis and attorney general candidate Gerald Baliles came as an anticlimax, and half the delegates were on their way out the door by the time the three nominees mounted the podium together.

Barton, his chest now brimming with campaign buttons, heaved a sigh of relief. There have been no major blowouts, the Democrats are talking about unity, Chuck Robb seems to have borrowed a few phrases from Lechner's prepared text, and Lechner as vice chairman may be a good idea -- both for Lechner and for the party.

"I think we've come out of it as well as we could have," he said as he followed the crowd out. "Now I'm going off to the beach. That'll probably be the highlight of this trip."