Virginia Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb the state's Democratic candidate for governor, and State Attorney General J, Marshall Coleman the Republican candidate, discussed the issues in their race before a group of Washington Post editors and reporters last week. Here are the highlights of that session .

Question: If voters were to remember your 3 1/2 years in office for one thing, what should that be?

Coleman: I had several goals and I mentioned some of them. One of them . . . [has been an effort] to redefine what we mean by federalism, and 've tried to do that through a series of court cases that we've brought, court cases that we've chosen to defend, to go before the Supreme Court and before other federaql courts and say, "Look, trust the states to manage their own affairs, within a constitutional framework."

This business of thinking that states' rights is a code word for racism or for being backward is something we need to get behind us because the vitality in federalism is with the states . . . .

ROBB: The office that I hold does not really lend itself to the type of accomplishment that you may be looking for. I suspect I'd go back to Newport News and the shipyards [there] and [my role] maintaining a dialogue during both an important organizational and strike period . . . I was able to communicate effectively enough with both management and labor during the period [and] . . . we advanced the overall stature and reputation of the Commonwealth in labor-management relations by keeping what was potentially a very volatile situation from . . . moving backwards instead of moving forwards.

Q: One of the themes that runs through each of your campaigns is that you are the most qualified candidate and there is a suggestions that your opponent shouldn't be trusted with the office of governor. Name one thing that's wrong with your opponent.

Robb: As you know, I have tried to avoid making criticism of Marshall, or my opponents in past races, an issue in the campaign and I'm not going to take the bait at this point. I would simply ask the public -- and this is by indirection rather than direction -- to look very carefully at everything that each of us says and particularly what we say about each other and about the way we characterize each other's positions . . . .

Q: Do you think the voters can trust your opponent?

Robb: Well I'm going to let the voters make that final decision.

Q: Do you trust him?

Robb: I don't distrust him. I am concerned from time to time about some liberties that he might take with what purport to be positions of mine.

Q: Name one policy of his that you think would go against the best interests of the Commonwealth. There are differences in judgment . . . .

Q: What would you say is the key difference between you?

Robb: In honesty, I think it relates much more to our style of leadership than any major philosophical or ideological gulf that exists between us . . . . We are both basically in the mainstream of political, philosophical and ideological thought in Virginia and, for that matter, nationally.

Q: The key difference?

Robb: Again, I've suggested in terms of our style . . . . 'm very much establishment-oriented, in terms of working within the established framework . . . .I prefer a relatively low-key approach to problem solving . . . . I'm more likely to want to work through a problem and achieve some degree of a solution or success before, frankly, I'm at all interested in you, or your colleagues, even knowing [about it] I'm not saying that my way is right and Marshall's is wrong, but I think there is a difference.

COLEMAN: Well, my problem with Chuck is that I can't pin him down or find out where he stands. It seems to me that he's for Carter in 1980, but he's for Reagan in 1981 . . . [and] during the course of this campaign I think there's been a tendency on his part . . . to seek to be all things to all people.

And he has this pattern that I see developing of going before a special interest group, for example the savings and loans, and telling them that he was going to help the housing industry in Virginia by seeing to it that 20 percent of the [state] retirement system [funds] was put into home loans . . . .

He's talked about how he wants to improve education, and came up with a program that I calculated would cost a billion dollars.. . . I wrote him a letter about it and he said, well, he didn't really mean it. I think that's true on the [state] sales tax, the various tax positions that Chuck has . . . .

Robb: With all due respect, may I say I rest my case? . . . I would be hard pressed to cite a more graphic example of the difference [between us].

Q: What specifically bothers you about what Coleman just said?

Robb: Let's start with the VSR [Virginia State Retirement System]. I made what seems to me to be about as reasonable a proposition as one could make. I suggested . . . that the funds be invested in Virginia mortgages, in order to hae a salutory effect on the various housing, real estate industries, [and] thrift industries, [and] all the others that are effected and are experiencing major unemployment, but at the same time increasing the yield to the [state's] retirees . . . . But it was attacked as being totally irresponsioble, [with] a lot of inflacted rhetoric . . . In truth, this is same approach [that] . . . 37 states use . . . .

Q: What Coleman is suggesting is that by going in front of the savings and lan people you are essentially offering them a gift. What is your response?

Robb: I used that forum as I use any other forum. Normally, you take it [a proposal] to a group that's interested in the proposal. We both do this . . . . You go before an industry that's having real problems, you talk a lot about their problems . . . .

Q: why do you want to be governor?

ROBB: I'd like to be governor because I think that we have a real opportunity in Virginia, we've got potential that has not yet been tapped, I think that there is an opportunity to meet their challenges.

Q: What challenges?

ROBB: We have a challenge that is confronting the state at the beginning of the '80s, and it's going to last at least for the next couple of decades . . . unlike anything that we have experienced, certainly in recent history.

We have over the course of the last few years, through a series of relatively modest tax cuts, accumulated a fairly substantial reduction in the revenues . . . . We also have lost the state component of federal revenue sharing, and in addition . . . the state agreed to fund a number of local programs, mostly in the law enforcement area . . . The cost of providing services continues to escalate, and yet we've got less real dollars . . . . This alone gives us . . . not only an opportunity, but a necessiry, to reexamine the proper role of government and to determine how we can continue to provide present services and programs more efficiently.

Q: What one thing would you eliminate?

ROBB: I'm going to fall back a little bit on the approach that President Reagan and others have taken. They have put everybody on notice that there is going to be a fundamental reexamination . . . .

COLEMAN: Well, I won't ask for equal time. Just give me half as much time . . . . It's going to be an exciting time to be in state government, and let me tell you why. I think we're going to have an opportunity to prove that federalism can really work and the states can become governing bodies again and that they're not just simply doing the bidding of Washington . . .

I think the three most important functions of state government would have to be public safety, transportation and education . . . . And I think what we need is a reform of the way we deal with criminals . . . . I think, secondly, with education, we need to learn what has been taught us by private schools [in] a disciplinee environment, high expectations of the students, regular participation, homework, parents who realize it's a joint obligation.

What I quarrel with Chuck about [is] coming up with a program that says that we've got to have all this much more money, we've got to fully fund these standards, we've got the greatest increase in public education proposed in the history of Virginia. All that hasn't accomplished very much. I don't think just throwing money at the problem is going to solve it . . . . In the period of the 1980's we're going to be in a period fo fiscal conservatism. Virginia has certainly grown; its government has been prudent, but there has been a tremendous explosion in governmental services.

Q: How can you do more for less?

COLEMAN: What I'm saying is that we really are going to try to make what we have do better. For example, when I took office as attorney general, I had campaigned on a platform of a 10 percent cut in the lawyers in the office. Well, we put that cap on and we're now down to 82 lawyers. I realize it's not a big deal, in a government as big as ours is, but it is a big deal in terms of what our agency did . . . . I'm convinced that the same kind of approach that [federal budget manager David] Stockman's taking in Washington, we can take in Richmond.

ROBB: . . . Marshall has got a very appealing style and, by golly, . . . some of the programs you've described in ways as though I wouldn't be seen dead with them, when they're precisely the programs that I have been advocating.

You have used this $1 billion increase in education. Where in the world do you get that kind of figure? You and I stood side by side in front of the principals and I told [them] exactly what my proposals amounted to . . . . It cost about $100 million. It would cost an additional $16 million in terms of the fringes and benefits. I said it would be nice, and we ought never to lose sight of funding the full standards of quality, but clearly we don't have the money for that right now. And I gave dollar amounts that it would cost to fund it. I made it very clear that I was not advocating that kind of funding. And yet you continue to talk about.

COLEMAN: Let me tell you what my problem is, Chuck. I read your position paper, which you gave to the education people in Virginia [that] said, "We must have as our goal fully funding the standards of quality." Now, I have to assume that you didn't mean that wasn't going to be done 10 years from now, or 20 years from now.

ROBB: Did you hear what I just told you?

COLEMAN: I wrote you a letter.

ROBB: Do you not believe me?

COLEMAN: Well, I don't understand how you can have two positions and maintain them at the same time.

Q: What do you think is the state's obligation to promote integration in the schools?

COLEMAN: I think that the obligation is to be sure that there's full access by all people to our public institutions, but I don't favor the approach of using the government to move people around here and there from one neighborhood to another to come up with some ideal racial mix.

ROBB: I'm concerned that the government do everything in its power to strike down any obstacle to full integration, to full participation, and to act affirmatively to ensure that those who might be affected know that those obstacles have been removed. I have real reservations in going beyond that, point . . . . Although I am fully supportive of affirmative action, I have major reservations about quotas.

Q: So that both of you feel that no assertive actions needs to be taken by state government through busing or paring of schools to ensure black children go to school with white children?

ROBB: That's right.

COLEMAN: I think the limitations of that approach have been pretty well demonstrated. And I think that most of those who are in predominatly black or predominantly white neighborhoods would agree that they want obstacles [to integration] taken away, but they don't want to be forced to take actions that they feel are contrary to the best education interest of their children . . . .

Q: Could both of you explain to me how it is possible for you to be in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, but to say that as governor you wouldn't do anything to bring about its passage in Virginia?

ROBB: . . . We've both been asked, each time that the amendment has been before the legislature [and] I have responded in each case to that. I was prepared to break a tie [in 1980, when the issue was on the Senate floor]. I think I've done what is appropriate . . . . I'm being a pragmatist and looking at the make-up of House Privileges and Election Committee [which must approve the amendment] and saying I think there is no realistic chance that it will work.

Q: It's your party that controls the General Assembly.

ROBB: That's correct. But I can be realistic . . . . One of the most important attributes of leadership, as far as I'm concerned, is knowing when you can act effectively and when you will simply be wasting your time and eroding the goodwill that you need to spend on other areas.

Q: Do you think that Virginia should increase its spending to make up for cuts in federal aid to localities, or do you favor any form of additional flexibility for local governments in Virginia to broaden their tax base outside of the property tax?

COLEMAN: No, I want to hold the line on taxes, I think my theory of federalism is that if they're going to cut . . . the funds, they very much need to cut the strings . . . My theory is that it doesn't make sense now, when the federal government is cutting taxes and cutting spending, for us simply to replace less government there with more government here . . .

Q: Do you agree with that?

ROBB: I would agree that there are certainly a lot of votes in that approach, saying that you just cannot increase taxes under any circumstances.

Q: Will you explain to me why it is offensive for Richmond officials to have to go to Washington to get permission to do something, and why it's not offensive for local officials to have to go to Richmond to get permission to do something?

COLEMAN: I'm sure it's offensive. The local governments would like to have carte blanche to do what they want to, but state government is this country . . . Now, I think it is offensive if Richmond is bureaucratic, and if it regulates too much, and if it doesn't give rise to the flexibility that says the solution in Norton is somewhat different from the solution in Arlington . . . I think, for example, [judicial] sentencing has to be the same all over the state. I think [in providing] basic education for our children, there has to be a floor all over the state. If Norton says it wants to spend its money on roads and not on education, I don't think we can let that happen. If they decide they don't want to have mental health facilities in part of the state, I don't think we can let that happen . . . I think the state has got to be the unit that protects the rights of its citizens, that guarantees certain protections to them.

ROBB: I don't have any basic disagreement.