Republican Wyatt Durrette and Democrat Gerald Baliles have debated nine times now in their race for attorney general of Virginia, and their themes are so similar that it is hard to tell them apart. In fact, at their most recent joint appearance before a group of prison guards in Richmond, about the only thing they found to debate was who could lay rightful claim to the conservative mantle.

And even there, the major question was not what or how, but when. Who came out first for the death penalty? Who has most consistently opposed collective bargaining for public employes? Who has shown a greater concern about crime for the longest time?

These now-ritual exchanges between Durrette and Baliles have resulted in a standoff on the ideological front. And, unlike the other two statewide races in Virginia, where an absence of issues has been substituted by clashes over personalities and damaging conflict-of-interest charges, little else has come along to arouse voter interest in the contest for the third spot on the ticket.

That is a major problem for both Baliles and Durrette, who are running in a statewide general election for the first time. Their names are not widely known; the office they seek is often misunderstood. And yet this humdrum race could decide, particularly for the Republicans, who will emerge as heir apparent for the next gubernatorial contest.

The polls have so far provided few clues on how the two candidates are doing. According to a Washington Post poll released today, Baliles and Durrette are dead even. But the more telling figure showed one out of every two respondents undecided. All of this has left Durrette somewhat discouraged.

"Sometimes you have to pause in semi-frustration," he said. "Here I've been running around the state since I declared in January -- Jerry since February -- and still 50 percent of the people have never heard of us."

Of the two, Durrette, 43, has had more exposure on the state political circuit. A three-term delegate from Fairfax County, Durrette emerged in 1976 as an early champion of Ronald Reagan, establishing his credentials among the conservative wing of the party. Regarded as an articulate legislator who is both wise to the ways of modern media and favored by the party establishment, Durrette in 1977 sought the Republican nomination for attorney general, only to find the prize wrested from him at a bloody convention by a young aggressive upstart, Marshall Coleman, the party's nominee for governor this year.

That nomination battle between Coleman and Durrette ironically has provided Baliles with one of his few campaign issues this year. Coleman made much of the fact that Durrette once sponsored "meet and confer" legislation supported by the public employe unions. Now Baliles is resurrecting that issue in an attempt to paint Durrette, who now opposes collective bargaining, as a candidate who was once soft on unions, or at least inconsistent.

Coleman and Durrette are known to still hold some animosity toward one another, and they have made few joint appearances on the campaign trail this year. But party officials say the situation is not too uncomfortable and there have been few disagreements between the two Republicans during the campaign.

Durrette's work for the party and his good standing with state conservatives, combined with the GOP's vaunted party organization, give him a definite advantage over Baliles in a close race, according to political observers. The benefits have come in the form of endorsements from old-line conservatives like former governor Mills Godwin and Roy Smith, a powerful Byrd Democrat who this year is straddling partisan fences and supporting Democrat Chuck Robb for governor. Men like Smith and Godwin are particularly helpful in attracting the money that all agree will be the key to overcoming low voter recognition in the third race.

While Baliles (rhymes with smiles) is short on state political credentials, he is strong on experience -- eight years in the attorney general's office and five years in the legislature. As an assistant and then deputy attorney general, Baliles handled criminal and later environmental cases.

Some Democrats insist that their candidate could win the race, banking on the strength of the rest of the ticket, on the party's traditional supporters and on the lack of the kind of negative stigma that dogged Democrat Ed Lane, a former segregationist, in 1977. "Jerry Baliles has a good chance to pull off an upset," said liberal Democratic strategist Paul Goldman, an adviser in the Lane campaign, "I would argue statistically that while Baliles is the big underdog, if he holds the blacks and the moderate-to-liberal Democrats who deserted Lane, he could do it."

Baliles' record, as he describes it, is one of a moderate conservative, a subtle distinction that has become shaded as the campaign wears on. Both Baliles and Durrette advocate minimum mandatory sentences for certain criminals, including those with repeat violent offenses; both have talked of the need for tougher bail laws and more money for prisons, all pointing to a tough-on-crime stance.

"This time, the issue is a perception of what the attorney general's office does. People tend to perceive the attorney general as a tough crime man," said Goldman. "Crime as an issue cuts across idealogical lines. Sure, Baliles is tough on crime but it's unfair for liberals to rule him out on that basis. It's wrong for any Democrat to concede the crime issue."

Along with claiming that he is tougher on crime than Durrette, Baliles is also attempting to get in on the conflict-of-interest campaign that the Democrats have been using to some advantage this year. He has urged Durrette to return the $1,500 in campaign contributions provided by former state highway commissioner William B. Wrench and Wrench's attorney John T. Hazel because of the "potential for conflict" created by the legislature's decision to investigate Wrench's vote to reroute a highway in Fairfax County.

This year, as four years ago, strategists consider Northern Virginia to be the key to the attorney general's race. Durrette, who expects to spend $600,000 on the campaign, has already started short television commercials in the Washington area. Baliles, whose budget for the general election is below $400,000, will also probably concentrate his media efforts in the north, hoping to recapture the moderate voters lost by Lane in 1977.