It seemed like old times.

Henry E. Howell Jr., the Norfolk liberal who ran unsuccessfully three times for governor of Virginia, was back on the stump yesterday, and the odds seemed about the same.

This time Howell was back in the Washington suburbs, plugging for Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale, whom polls show to be facing the same uphill battle that Howell faced there in the 1970s.

Howell, a liberal who refused to accommodate the conservative wing of the state Democratic Party, brought his one-man statewide swing to Fairfax County, proclaiming that the Mondale-Ferraro candidacy is "a ticket for the future of Virginia."

Wearing a red, white and blue Mondale-Ferraro button and a small golden horseshoe on his lapel, the white-haired Howell declared: "Ronald Reagan is a disaster for this country. He's hurting this country by dividing it and leading it into bankruptcy.

"My campaign to keep the big boys honest and keep the system fair is related to what Mondale is doing," he said, recycling his populist 1969 gubernatorial campaign slogan pledging to "Keep the Big Boys Honest."

It was a vintage performance for Howell, 64, who despite a cancer operation and then triple-bypass heart surgery two months ago, made 11 appearances for Mondale at his own expense during the last five days from Roanoke to Fredericksburg. Howell called the swing, which ended in a Reston church last night, "Operation Turnaround: the Road to Victory."

The former lieutenant governor, linked by Virginia Republicans and some Democrats with the disastrous 1972 presidential campaign of George S. McGovern and the rise of the GOP in the state, said at a Fairfax City press conference he believes the Mondale-Ferraro ticket has a chance in Virginia.

A poll taken three weeks ago by The Richmond Times-Dispatch of 853 registered Virginia voters, however, showed Reagan with a 2-to-1 lead in the state, with just 15 percent undecided. Political analysts have called Virginia one of the most pro-Reagan states in the country, and discounted the chances of the Democratic ticket.

"That's what they said about Harry Truman in 1948," said Howell yesterday. "I think it's possible to turn it around."

"I wasn't drafted for this tour but I was compelled to do it," said Howell. "I've felt good vibrations from the people all week. I've been going to the old Howell territories. The votes are out there."

Republicans said, however, they do not think the Howell swing will bolster Mondale's chances. "There are some Democrats he'll appeal to, and others he won't," said Jay O'Brien, executive director of the Reagan-Bush campaign in Virginia. "But it doesn't matter. They don't need to impress the Democrats, they need to impress the undecideds. And there's no sign that's happening."