Two Democratic candidates held the first public debate of the 1985 Virginia gubernatorial campaign last night, addressing the controversial issues of race and liberal politics already injected into the young campaign.

The opening debate of what is expected to be an acrimonious campaign to replace Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb pitted Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis, the acknowledged front-runner and only announced Democratic candidate, against state Attorney General Gerald Baliles, who has not officially announced his candidacy but has already started organizing a campaign.

Robb is barred from succeeding himself.

The candidates addressed the controversy within the Democratic Party surrounding the candidacy of state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, a black who is the party's only announced candidate for lieutenant governor.

"It's time we put away the mint juleps and started building a new Dominion of Virginia," said Baliles, alluding to skepticism in some wings of the party over whether a black candidate can be elected to statewide office in conservative Virginia.

Davis said, "Our very best people should be our nominees . . . without regard to race, sex and religion."

In response to pointed questions from members of the Northern Virginia Democratic Association, which sponsored the forum at Blackie's Steak House in Springfield, both candidates tried to distance themselves from labels of liberalism, a political position usually considered fatal to statewide candidates in Virginia.

"I've been described as a moderate conservative," said Baliles.

Davis, citing recent mocking caricatures in the conservative Richmond newspapers, told the gathering of about 160 Democrats, "When it comes to liberalism, I stand along with you."

The candidates noted that the 1985 Virginia gubernatorial campaign will attract national attention as one of only two statewide election contests that year.

They also noted that the Democratic Party will be under intense national scrutiny in the aftermath of allegations of disorganization and inner-party bickering that plagued the recent campaign efforts of the national Democratic Party.

Attempting to avoid some of that acrimony, both candidates studiously avoided attacking each other, levelling their toughest criticisms at what they alleged were the negative effects of the Reagan administration on the state.

But Baliles said the 1985 gubernatorial election will hinge as much on "personalities" as it will on issues.

Announced Republican candidates for the governorship are former Fairfax County state legislator Wyatt B. Durrette and U.S. Rep. Stan Parris of Fairfax County.