At night, Ray Garland sits in his bathtub, thinking up apt phrases--R nuggets of wit that will bedazzle his Senate colleagues the next day.

Judging by his recent performance, the Roanoke Republican has done some inspired bathing this session. His speeches, rich with metaphors and obscure quotations, have become the highlight of the annual flood of Senate oratory.

Some senators invoke the giants of Virginia history, others deliver barnyard metaphors in a country twang. But few play the game better than Garland, a 47-year-old bachelor and ardent Anglophile, who recently took the floor to liken a gasoline tax bill to a "voluptuous courtesan recumbent upon a splendid divan, tempting us with charms we know we should resist."

In its place, Garland suggested a more modest tax which, he admitted, was "a dollop, a mere bagatelle, small change perhaps."

Garland sprinkles his speeches on such issues as industrial revenue bonds and local restaurant taxes with quotes from the French philosopher Voltaire, the American satirist Ambrose Bierce and a gallery of British prime ministers. But the performance of which he is most proud came recently when he harpooned a group health insurance bill by invoking the unlikely name of Roscoe Conkling.

Conkling, Garland instructed his puzzled colleagues, was the 19th century New York senator and political boss who was once asked the question: "Do you vote for the people or do you vote for the special interests?"

"I always vote for the special interests," was Conkling's reply, "because the people forget."

"I love to quote odd people," says Garland, who hopes to talk his way into the state's 6th congressional seat this fall. "Anybody who has a funny name is always great to begin with and there is no name funnier than . . . Roscoe Conkling."

An independently wealthy investor, Garland's addiction to crackling rhetoric grew out of his worship of Winston Churchill, whose speeches and personal habits he emulates to a tee. It was from his boyhood hero that he learned to rehearse his phrase-making during a nightly bath. "I never take a shower," says Garland proudly, "and of course Churchill never did either."

The Virginia Senate's penchant for oratory can seem strange, if not pointless, to outsiders, especially since it often flowers during discussions of issues that do not exactly capture the public's imagination. For those who have to listen, speechifying like Garland's can appear more theater than debate, an ill-disguised audition for future campaign speeches, Rotary Club talks--even courtroom summations.

"It's entertaining at times, but there are times that you have to endure it," says Sen. Howard P. Anderson (D-Halifax), one of the Senate's more silent members. "You just sit and let the mind wander."

But to the participants, the Senate's love of talk is rooted in the traditions and history of the country's oldest legislative body. "We use a fairly stylized parliamentary style here," says Senate majority leader Hunter Andrews (D-Hampton.) "The speeches are part of that. It's part of the concept of a dignified system."

Andrews, with his booming voice and aristocratic manner, is considered the Democrats' best match for Garland. When he is in the mood, the Hampton lawyer has a forceful style and rare command of vivid language. During the gas tax debate, he managed by deft juxtaposition to equate raising taxes with good roads and good roads with the safety of women and children.

Speaking against a bill to change the state's inheritance laws, Andrews waxed eloquent on the colonial tradition of passing family farms from generation to generation. "It's a principle in Virginia," Andrews thundered. "What's in the blood stays in the blood. The children should get it and not some bimbo that comes along as a stepmother. . . . If you want to vote for the bimboes, go ahead."

There are other practictioners who enliven dull days in the Senate. Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax) is the acknowledged master of ornate rhetoric. Sen. Wiley Mitchell (R-Alexandria) is known for his shrewd vivisection of legislative language. Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), the Senate's only black, has a reputation for biting sarcasm and occasional eloquence, especially on civil rights and social issues.

Then there are the rural senators who use homespun yarns to good effect. Sen. William A. Truban, (R-Woodstock), minority leader and vegetarian, recently rose on the floor to tell a tale about a country preacher, a dove and a yellow cat--which he somehow related to a pending tax measure.

In a rivalry as intense as this, each senator's technique is bound to come under close scrutiny. Andrews, one senator noted, may occasionally be brilliant, "but his forcefulness and eloquence tend to rise in direct proportion to the weakness of his case." Garland, meanwhile, dismisses Gartlan as "tedious" and Andrews as "bombastic," and says Mitchell is "consistently good without ever being very good."

But Wilder speaks for many of his colleagues when he says that Garland, while entertaining, is often irrelevant. "If it's not Churchill, it's Cromwell or some other noted English gentleman," said Wilder. "He doesn't have much time for our people."