The two men who dominated Virginia politics throughout the last turbulent decade have withdrawn like lone eagles from the campaign scene in 1981, doing little to hide their distaste for the gubernatorial candidates chosen by their parties.

Former Gov. Mills E. Godwin's conversion to Republicanism in 1973 set off a mass migration by conservative Democrats and helped transform the Virginia GOP into one of the nation's most successful state parties. But he has yet to campaign for Republican J. Marshall Coleman, and has for months issued a series of terse "no comments" from his mansion in rural Chuckatuck, Va., when asked why he has not been active.

Twenty miles east, in urban Norfolk, former Lt. Gov. Henry E. Howell, the aggressive populist who lost the 1973 gubernatorial contest to arch-rival Godwin by a single percentage point, also remains on the sidelines. Unlike Godwin, however, Howell says he is there not so much by choice but because Democrat Charles S. Robb and his supporters fear that Howell's participation might drive back into the Republican Party thousands of the conservative voters Robb has courted.

Godwin's and Howell's absence marks a new era in Virginia politics, for this is the first time in 20 years of gubernatorial campaigns that neither man is running for statewide office. Both say they will vote for their respective parties' nominees, but for reasons both philosophical and personal, neither will do so with enthusiasm.

Howell, 61, who has long been critical of Robb's cautious conservatism and fuzziness on many of the issues Howell holds dear, says he will "force both hands to pull the lever" for Robb on election day.

Friends say that Godwin, 66, is suspicious of Coleman's conservatism and also harbors a personal dislike for the state attorney general. Four years ago, Coleman defeated Ed Lane, a conservative Democrat and close Godwin ally, in part by attacking Lane's segregationist past-- a past shared by Godwin, who as a state legislator led the fight for "Massive Resistance."

"He's supporting the Republican ticket but it's just as apparent as it can possibly be that he has no enthusiasm for Marshall Coleman," says longtime Godwin friend W. Roy Smith, who heads Virginians for Robb, a conservative group that includes many Reagan backers.

In recent weeks, with polls indicating that Coleman trails Robb, Godwin has been under increasing pressure from Republican leaders to join the campaign. Last week, Republican Gov. John N. Dalton conceded that Robb had made surprising inroads among independent conservatives, many of whom consider Godwin their spiritual leader.

"I'm sure there are people who listen to Mills Godwin," said the governor in an interview. "I wish he and U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd and a whole lot of people were out working as hard as I'm working."

Other Republican leaders openly suggest that they will hold Godwin at least partly to blame should Coleman lose.

"There's a lot of resentment," says Fairfax Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Northern Virginia's senior GOP state legislator. "He might have his personal reasons, but the Republican Party made a home for him and I just don't understand what's going on. Would he rather see a Democrat elected?"

Coleman wooed the former governor extensively earlier this year, making two pilgrimages to Chuckatuck and engaging in an all-day conversation at the John Marshall Hotel here last winter. But lately, the Coleman campaign has tried to downplay Godwin's nonparticipation. Campaign manager Anson Franklin says "he's not doing a whole lot, but I feel he will show his support for the ticket before election day."

However, Smith and other pro-Robb conservatives have been on the telephone to Godwin in recent weeks, seeking to keep the former governor out of the campaign.

Godwin -- who has said of the pro-Robb conservatives, "I have great respect for all of them" -- conceded in a telephone interview last week that he feels "some pressure from both sides, I must say." But he gave no indication of whether he plans to do any campaigning for Coleman.

Byrd, a Democrat turned independent, is another conservative who appears to be playing both sides this year. He accompanied Nancy Reagan to Richmond last month to a Coleman fund-raiser, sparking speculation that he was ready to switch to the GOP and run for reelection next year. A few weeks later, however, he sent Smith a friendly but noncommittal letter about Virginans for Robb, and Smith quickly reproduced 6,000 copies to mail to conservatives around the state.

Meanwhile, it appears that no one is wooing Henry Howell, who was defeated overwhelmingly by Dalton in his last run for governor in 1977. In a recent Washington Post poll of Virginia voters, Howell received only a 40 percent approval rating, the lowest of any politician listed except Richard Nixon. Robb campaign aides say that their surveys also reflect Howell's unpopularity.

Liberal Democrats repeatedly have asked Robb to call Howell and offer an olive branch, but the candidate, who chafed under Howell's criticism for four years, has demurred. In a recent interview, Robb said: "It isn't a matter of any desire to be less than charitable to Henry Howell, it's a matter of not having him become an issue in the campaign."

Howell, who pointedly was not invited to the state Democratic convention this year, says, "Mr. Robb has the right to run without asking for my help."

Howell predicted Robb would win, but warned that the victory would be credited to Smith and other old guard conservatives. And he added, "If the people of Virginia want to go back to the Byrd days, that's okay with me."

Then Howell, as he often did on the stump, switched to a metaphor. Comparing himself to the conservatives, he declared: "I'm a flatland clogger and they're minuets. . . and you don't find a flatland clogger going to a minuet."