Bill Flora said he planned to attend one of Virginia's caucus meetings to help decide the Democratic nominee for governor today because he promised his union leader he would. It's one of the last ways he would like to spend a Saturday.

The 37-year-old machinist from Roanoke went to one such "mass meeting" about 10 years ago and enjoyed it about as much as sitting through someone else's family squabble.

"It was too long. They didn't seem to be able to settle anything quick enough," recalled Flora. "If you walked in without someone to explain things to you, you wouldn't know what was going on."

Virginia's system for nominating candidates for statewide offices is not set up for the everyday kind of voter who grudgingly squeezes in a few minutes to pull a lever, propelled as much by guilt as by interest.

The process can last as long as five hours and involve such activities as standing in a windowless school gymnasium and parading back and forth through school cafeterias for head counts. "A trial and tribulation," said Rachel Kopel of Alexandria, who participated last year.

In most parts of the state, participants this year will spend several hours voting to adopt rules, electing a chairman and filling out ballots for delegates representing either Baliles or Davis to the party's nominating convention.

In Northern Virginia, organizers have made particular efforts to streamline the process and say voters will be able to cast ballots for the delegates and leave very quickly.

"Ten minutes flat!" promises one candidate's flyer. "It's fun, it's fast . . . . "

Still, the process lacks the appeal and familiarity of a primary election to the average voter, and for this reason, the vast majority of states do not use it.

At least 46 states and the District of Columbia rely on primaries to nominate candidates for state- wide offices. Only three states follow Virginia's method, which allows the leadership of the parties to decide whether to hold a primary or choose the nominee at a party convention where only delegates selected at caucuses can vote.

Virginia Democrats have not opted for a primary since 1977, and the Republicans have not held one since 1949.

Even the usual term for these caucuses -- mass meetings -- is not readily understood, suggesting to some people something more in the line of a religious revival or a cross-burning than a political event.

Political experts say the advantage of Virginia's process is that it gives the party loyal a voice in who the party's nominee will be.

In an era of eroding party structures and media-made candidates, experts say, that is a laudable goal. "A lot of people believe the primary system had a lot to do with weakening the party system," said Gary Greenhaugh of the International Center on Election Law.

"In some states, there's nothing left."

The caucus method is also seen as less bruising and not quite as expensive as the primary system because, in the end, the caucus battle is one of organization, not popularity.

On the negative side is the fact that the caucuses are in many ways an insider's game. "There's no way in the world you could sell this in states with strong populist traditions," said Richard Smolka, professor of government at American University, of Virginia's system.

To a number of experts, the answer to the debate lies with a hybrid process, adopted by a handful of states, that allows parties to endorse candidates but gives voters the final say in a primary.

In Virginia, it does not seem to be a burning issue. Many of the state's politicians "like the system we have," said Chris Spanos, a Fairfax County Democratic official.