When Richard A. Viguerie, the direct mail chieftain of the New Right, invited Virginia's Republican legislators to a cocktail reception here a few weeks ago, many were taken aback by a Viguerie aide who passed through the room handing out $100 campaign checks.

Some of the lawmakers were grateful. Others appeared embarrassed. Still others were quizzical that Viguerie, himself a surprise contender for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, was giving money to others.

"He was trying to dispel the idea that he was going to go in like a grim reaper and take down all Republicans with whom he disagreed," says state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr., a Republican from Alexandria.

A Northern Virginian who has achieved national fame selling other people's candidacies, Viguerie is trying to sell his own, joining a growing number of political ideologues taking the leap into local politics. But Viguerie is discovering that the party faithful in Virginia tend to be more committed to the party than to the conservative cause.

"The guy spent the last decade publicly criticizing the Republican Party, using the harshest of rhetoric and at times ridiculing the leaders," fumes Richard Cullen, a Richmond Republican activist and close associate of former Republican governor John N. Dalton. "Some think he doesn't deserve to come into this state and have conferred upon him the banner of the state GOP when he's been a thorn in the side of the party . . . . It's worse than not having earned his dues."

Viguerie bristles at such criticism. "No one has done more across the country -- I hate to be immodest -- to elect Republicans than myself," he told a recent gathering of Young Republicans in Arlington.

Few Republicans dispute that Viguerie's candidacy has enlivened what many had expected to be a runaway race for former state attorney general J. Marshall Coleman of McLean, the party's 1981 canidate for governor.

Coleman and the other three candidates for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor decline to discuss publicly Viguerie's motives for entering the contest, but his style has become the talk of their race.

"He simply doesn't fit the Virginia image of a leader," says Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst and author of a recent book that dissected Viguerie's role among conservative public action committees. "He isn't genteel, he isn't predictable."

In a state where politics is still considered a gentleman's sport, Viguerie's flamboyant evangelical style is suspect to many Republicans. A short, balding man with a quick grin and high-pitched laugh, he uses the speaker's podium to launch into fiesty tirades against big government, big unions, big business and a myriad of philosophical issues.

Calling himself a "born-again Catholic," Viguerie, 51, liberally mixes his religion with his politics.

"I think, 'What are those things Christ would want me to do? Would Christ get on that plane and fly to New York and go on the "Phil Donahue Show?" ' I believe he would, so I go," says Viguerie, sitting in an office surrounded by religious mementos. A gilded statuette of the Virgin Mary stands on a nearby table and a brown-toned picture of Jesus hangs on the wall amid framed photographs of Viguerie's family and friends.

He says he got "no message to run for lieutenant governor," but spent hours poring over the Bible for guidance.

Although Viguerie has resided in Virginia for years (he owns an estate in McLean plus a home in the town of Washington and a cattle farm, both in Rappahannock County), he is making his first venture into state politics. His only other campaign for public office, a 1976 run for vice president as an independent, was unsuccessful.

Since most of the delegates selected for the GOP's May 31 nominating convention in Norfolk have been selected on the basis of their support for a candidate for governor, it's difficult to predict how the lieutenant governor's race is going. Some party regulars note that the day of the crucial Fairfax County mass meetings, Viguerie was in Roanoke participating in a meeting on abortion and few think he has a chance of securing the nomination.

Even so, he is viewed as a potential convention power broker who could throw his support to another conservative, such as state Sen. John H. Chichester of Fredericksburg, thus sidetracking the more liberal Coleman.

If his fledgling Campaign for Virginia political action committee takes root, it could become Virginia's major statewide Republican fund-raising operation, some say.

Although Northern Virginia is home base for the operations of dozens of national conservative organizations, few individuals from these groups have been able to make substantial inroads into the state's politics. Lawrence D. Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, was ousted from the state legislature in 1981 after a single term as a Fairfax County delegate, as was John S. Buckley, a Viguerie associate and cousin of conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr.

Viguerie is quick to note that, if elected, he would use the part-time, $20,000-a-year lieutenant governor's position to expand the political base of such candidates and spread the gospel of conservative Republicanism: "To help make the Republican Party the majority party -- to help raise funds, to help elect people, to help start new organizations."

Some Virginia GOP leaders say Viguerie may be too conservative for the Virginia GOP. Former governor Dalton says he rejected Viguerie's request for an endorsement.

"I told him I had some difficulty understanding his seeking a Republican nomination when he just finished raising money to beat Sen. Charles Chuck Percy R-Ill. and had actually opposed former president Ford," says Dalton.

"I'm a conservative first," responded Viguerie.

"This is a Republican convention first," Dalton says he retorted.

Lee Edwards, a longtime Viguerie associate who is editor of the Conservative Digest magazine, which Viguerie publishes, says Viguerie's debute in state politics came as no surprise to him. "It's a natural development of his long-term goals and objectives. It's been 10 years in the making. It's been a long training ground."

Viguerie has been a creature of politics since his youth, but he describes himself as a "late bloomer." A native of Texas, he says he entered college planning to become an engineer so he could "make some quick money down south and come back to Houston -- and run for Congress."

His algebra grades were too low for engineering, so he switched to prelaw: "I had observed that many politicians were lawyers." After less than a year and a report card of Cs and Ds, he quit law school and began dabbling in Texas Republican politics in Houston.

His first professional foothold in politics came when he answered a magazine advertisement for a New York City field coordinator for the fledgling Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) in the early 1960s.

That is where he launched his career as a direct-mail fund-raiser. Too shy to approach powerful, wealthy potential contributors in person and ask for money, he began churning out letters.

He eventually opened his own fund-raising business in the Virginia suburbs and built a successful, but controversial, direct-mail empire that last year ground out more than 102 million pieces of mail pushing conservative causes and soliciting money for conservative campaigns.

For two decades, Viguerie has built an image as a kingmaker in the New Right faction of the Republican Party. He is credited with institutionalizing direct mail as a cornerstone of political fund-raising with one of the largest mailing lists in the nation. He is an author, magazine publisher and frequent commentator on national news and talk shows -- all forums for promoting conservative ideologies.

Viguerie has been criticized by many of his own political clients for retaining as much as 90 percent of the funds he raises, passing along only tiny percentages of the profits to the candidate or cause.

"The purpose of the Viguerie Co. is to advance the causes I believe in," says Viguerie. "I've built most of the big conservative organizations out there. Most of the people in the country raising money for conservative causes have come through here."

"He is very sincere," says Edwards. "When Richard says he wants to help save Western Civilization, he really means it."

To the surprise of some Virginia conservatives, he opposes the death penalty. Viguerie says his campaign might be "easier" if he favored it, but Christ, he says, would not approve of executions.

That is vintage Viguerie and he offers no apologies to his critics.

"In their minds, we're neanderthals," he says. "But they really don't understand."