One man was soft on drugs. He did the "flip-flop-flip" on taxes. His mandatory sentencing plan was a sham. He looked the other way when his friends feathered their nests at public expense. He helped get drug pushers out of jail.

His name was Marshall Coleman.

The other man wasn't born in Virginia. He married his way to the top. He was a '60s liberal hiding in '80s conservative garb. He talked out of both sides of his mouth. The things he said made you wonder if he was smoking dope.

And his name was Charles Robb.

That, anyway, is how the two candidates for governor of Virginia have portrayed each other on the public airwaves in their bitter contest for the state's highest office. The Tweedledum and Tweedledee candidates of two months ago had turned into Dracula and Frankenstein.

Virginians had never seen or heard anything like it.

"The ads have so confused the issue, the people are just as mixed up as they were at the beginning," said one GOP media adviser. "Virginians are just not sensitized to this kind of campaign media barrage."

The race didn't start out as vitriolic, but it was destined to become so, because Democrat Robb and Republican Coleman did what their advisers said was necessary in a race where both candidates must win over the same conservative-to-moderate voters. And once it began, it was carried by its own momentum.

Robb's campaign strategy was to move away from the traditional Democratic liberal base just enough to hold most of it, but at the same time appeal to the middle ground. In conservative Virginia, it was important to Robb that the public see few differences between the men on the issues.

For Coleman, a maverick legislator and attorney general who had won one-third of the black vote when positioned as a moderate in 1977, it also was important to be seen as a true conservative who would not rock the boat. So with the candidates dressed up in similar image and ideology, little but details and personal character were left to attract the attention of an indifferent public that properly saw little substantive difference between the candidates.

Moreover, personal factors -- Robb's limited government experience and his fame won through marriage to Lynda Bird Johnson vs. Coleman's willingness to transform himself from a maverick moderate to a mainline conservative overnight -- were public issues, like it or not.

From all of this, an abusive campaign followed almost logically.

The media barrage cost more than $1 million per candidate, not including the few hundred-thousand-dollar cost of producing the commercials and paying Robb's Robert Squier and Coleman's Douglas Bailey for their expertise, making it the costliest gubernatorial race in Virginia history. They did it with more than 70 different TV and radio commercials, beamed upwards of 3,000 times into homes across the state.

Robb attacked Coleman's record on the thinnest of evidence. Coleman, once an appealing candidate to moderate voters and blacks, pitched a hard line against issues supported by blacks, bringing charges of racism down on himself, but at the same time hitting at Robb's tenuous conservative support.

All of this nastiness began in September, when Robb used a newspaper paraphrase to charge that Coleman didn't think marijuana was a "serious problem." Coleman, in what Republicans view as one of the big mistakes of the campaign, responded that Robb's charges made you "wonder what Robb's been smoking."

In between flew charges that Coleman helped marijuana smugglers expedite their release from prison, that Robb was running on the coattails of his Johnson in-laws and that Coleman was wrapped in a "web of scandal" because of alleged conflicts of interest involving his running mate and one of his fund-raisers.

That ad, said Republican National Committee strategist Kenneth Klinge, "is the most vicious thing I've ever heard in 15 years of politics.".

Even the candidates briefly dove for cover. "We're not going to do any more of it unless we're attacked first," said Robb of negative advertising after the radio exchange on marijuana had caused a statewide uproar. "I don't like it. But you have all these advisers telling you, 'Chuck, you have to do it. You have to do it.' "

A week later, Robb's campaign was broadcasting biting radio attacks on Coleman's law enforcement proposals and record as attorney general.

When polls showed that Coleman was trailing Robb by a wide margin, Klinge was dispatched from the national GOP. "If they are going to pull that kind of dirty stuff," he said, "I don't mind knocking them in the teeth."

It was the nature of Virginia's past campaigns that defined the nature of this campaign. "Virginia politics is so stupefyingly boring," says one Coleman aide, "we knew that anytime we injected something new it would get a lot of attention."

In the last weeks of the race, Squier and Bailey started airing their man-on-the-street ads, a well-worn media tactic. These interviews showed how well earlier commercials had created a hall of mirrors image for the candidates, as average citizens without prompting repeated the exact words and phrases campaign tacticians had written and broadcast weeks before.

Squier made 10 television commercials for Robb. Bailey made more than 20 for Coleman. Although Robb is personally withdrawn and formal, his ads showed him as friendly and outgoing, walking and talking with Virginians, his brow furrowed, his square jaw thrust forward, his speech seemingly unrehearsed and from the heart.

The ads were aimed at breaking what Robb's advisers believed was a popular perception that Robb's formal demeanor meant he was cold, uncaring and unable to relate to people.

So while Robb's aides said he detested the gimmickry of TV campaigning, he was shown blasting a target on a police pistol range, dressed in a hard hat and white overalls greeting coal miners and being splattered with mud to portray him as the victim of Coleman's mudslinging.

In contrast, Coleman's commercials were "set" pieces made for the most part in the production studio. Some Coleman staff members, admirers of their candidate's sharp wit and personal charm, complained that he was never adequately portrayed in his TV commercials, that if he had been, Robb wouldn't have stood a chance.

"It should have been a runaway," said one Coleman aide.

But, as Robb's ads emphasized a style that is not all his own, Coleman's set-ups were trying to do the same. Studies showed that at the top of the list of personal qualities voters want most in a Virginia politician is honesty -- measured by sincerity and consistency. Intelligence, as measured by wit and charm, is at the bottom.

Coleman had been a maverick politician who broke ranks with Republican power brokers more than once. He is, said his campaign manager Anson Franklin, a man who "didn't join all the clubs" and who "would be his own man."

The trouble was that Coleman's greatest personal strength -- his plucky intelligence, wit and independence -- were perceived by his advisers as qualities that could be interpreted as flip and untrustworthy by conservative Virginians.

So his ads stuck to prepared scripts, avoided Coleman's natural, sarcastic sense of humor and emphasized instead his ties to the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan.

Said Bailey last August: "Virginia is a land of traditions, and you don't throw those over and do very well."