After years of watching the Virginia General Assembly, Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor, says that the state legislators are convinced "that Western Civilization hasn't collapsed with things as they are."

What's more, he says, they are equally determined that "the way to keep Western Civilization alive and kicking is to preserve the present and the past."

This cautiousness permeates the legislature, and it has been deadly this year for many proposals to liberalize the state's voter registration laws, including proposals to allow voters to register anywhere in the state and to lift a ban on registrars' soliciting people to register.

Why? In other states voter registration is a motherhood issue -- something any legislator of any political persuasion can support. But before the oldest continuous legislative body in the Western Hemisphere does something major, somebody powerful has to push.

And Gov. Charles S. Robb, who as a candidate championed better registration laws, adopted a low profile on the issue this year. He did work for two constitutional amendments and one other minor change, but he did not lobby for a number of changes recommended by an 18-month study commission he appointed.

Aides say Robb did not believe the proposal for statewide registration and other changes had a chance of passing, though some supporters say Robb's prophesy was self-fulfilling.

Moreover, Sue Fitz-Hugh, whom Robb appointed as secretary of the state Board of Elections, argued that registrars were not ready this year to handle statewide registration. The state association of registrars had voted for the change. "Most felt we could handle it," said Alice Lynch, the group's president.

Supporters say the proposals also suffered from a growing realization by Democrats, who control the House and Senate, that more liberal voter registration laws may benefit the Republicans more than their party.

"The ardor of Democrats for increasing registration has cooled because they've found out it actually favors the Republicans," Sabato said.

That realization comes on top of what supporters of the changes decribe as the traditional fears of conservative Democrats that easier registration will mean more new liberal voters in their area.

"A number of people have a vested political interest in not registering people to vote," said one legislator who supported the changes.

Sabato and others describe the legislators who sponsored the voter registration measures as some of the least powerful and newest members: Sen. Robert C. Scott (D-Newport News) and Dels. William P. Robinson Jr. (D-Norfolk) and Clifton A. Woodrum (D-Roanoke).

Nonetheless, the House of Delegates has called for two constitutional amendments that, if approved by another session and then by voters, would amount to significant change.

The amendments would expand the pool of registrars to include state and federal employes. Supporters say it would allow voters to register at more convenient places such as motor vehicle offices where they apply for drivers' licenses, and that it would provide for longer hours at some registrars offices in rural areas that often are only open a few days a week.

In addition, the amendments would require registrars, who now automatically purge the rolls of voters who have not cast a ballot in four years, to notify the affected voters of the upcoming purge. Voters could keep their names on the books by sending back a notice in the mail.

The amendments have been in trouble in a Senate committee, but supporters hope they can still push it through. Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) initially appeared willing to support only a new study of voter registration, but now he says he may support the amendments if their language ensures that elected officials and their employes will not be involved in trying to register voters.

Judy Goldberg, a lobbyist for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that if the amendments pass, the total effort of voter registration reforms will have batted 50-50 this session. Goldberg said that would disappoint her; Sabato said he would be "pleasantly surprised" by that result.

Overall, supporters say the voter registration package suffered from a lack of heavyweights. "It turned out only to be a priority for the ACLU and groups like that, who don't have a lot of clout," Sabato said.