After a routine meeting of the Fairfax County Democratic steering committee early last year, a group of five or six activists headed for a nearby restaurant for a late-night snack and some blunt political talk.

The topic was who should be the candidate for the party's nomination for governor in 1985, and Don Beyer Jr., a 34-year-old committee member, listened with keen interest.

As Beyer, a boyish-looking Volvo dealer, recalls the conversation, the group clearly favored Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis, the front-runner, over state Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles. To Beyer, their reasons were less than compelling.

"Everything I heard was that Jerry was better organized and the better mind," Beyer said. "He also seemed to have more energy and was the more electable of the two." The argument for Davis, it seemed to Beyer, boiled down to: "Dick's paid his dues."

By the time Beyer had finished his peach melba, he was a Baliles supporter and on his way to becoming a crucial player in Baliles' victory over Davis earlier this month.

Beyer led a direct-mail and telephone blitz that, like Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign, attracted Democrats outside the core of party activists and scored a breakthrough in a region considered a Davis stronghold.

It was an all-out push that picked up about 125 to 150 more delegates from the Washington suburbs than Davis aides had expected and formed the centerpiece for a rural-suburban coalition that gave Baliles enough delegates to claim the nomination.

"The secret to the election," said David Doak, Baliles' chief political consultant, "was that we broke through in Northern Virginia."

Davis has not conceded the race and has said he will challenge the selection of 700 delegates to the party's nominating convention in Richmond June 7.

Bobby Watson, his campaign manager, gives less importance to Baliles' Northern Virginia success than to Davis' failure to cut into some rural areas. But he concedes that Baliles put up a formidable fight in the region. "They dumped in a massive effort," he said. "They threw in the kitchen sink."

Beyer, who became Baliles' Northern Virginia campaign coordinator last fall, remembers when hopes for a Baliles victory were not nearly so bright. The political game plan he drafted Thanksgiving weekend for Northern Virginia showed why.

"Dick Davis has been campaigning virtually full time for the past year, and has been very visible in Northern Virginia," Beyer wrote. "As lieutenant governor and Senate candidate, Davis has much higher name recognition than Jerry Baliles . . . . He has also accumulated a significant degree of mainline party support . . . . "

In other key areas of the state, the story was much the same. Baliles, the more conservative candidate who was reared on a southern Virginia farm, could reasonably be expected to win the largely rural part of the state stretching west of Richmond. Davis held the delegate-rich urban areas, including his home territory of Hampton Roads, as well as a significant portion of Southside Virginia.

Unless Baliles could cut into Davis' strength in either Virginia Beach, the state's largest city, or Northern Virginia, Baliles' strategists realized, their candidate would lose.

Baliles was not the easiest candidate for Beyer and his campaign workers to sell to Northern Virginia Democrats. Though Baliles professes support for the Equal Rights Amendment, as a state legislator from the Richmond area he once voted to send the ERA to a hostile committee. Though both he and Davis opposed gun control, the National Rifle Association had endorsed Baliles.

On the positive side, Baliles was almost 20 years younger than Davis and, even with his heavy-lidded eyes, had the look of someone who would lead the state forward.

Davis, 63, has a jowly face and ruddy complexion that some voters associated with a Tip O'Neill-style pol.

Some Democrats, such as state Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax), say they envisioned Davis on television next to the likely Republican candidate, 47-year-old Wyatt B. Durrette, a Richmond lawyer, and despaired.

"There's a major bloc of voters who make up their minds on the basis of the 60-second commercial," said Watts, who supported Baliles. "Jerry's physical appearance doesn't get in the way. It conveys . . . energy and positive, forward action."

Baliles' moderate-conservative views gave him an edge over the more liberal Davis in the debate over who was more electable in conservative Virginia.

"I think Jerry has a better chance of winning," said state Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid (D-Fairfax), one of a number of legislators who saw Baliles as more in the mold of Gov. Charles S. Robb. A Northern Virginian, Robb was the first Democrat to win the governor's office in 12 years, and he cannot succeed himself.

Davis' loss to Paul S. Trible in the 1982 U.S. Senate race added to the argument. More than one voter, like Terry Banks of Fairfax County, remembers Davis' campaign as "very lackadaisical."

For one well-known liberal, Ira M. Lechner of Arlington, it was a question of substance. Lechner, who lost the nomination for lieutenant governor to Davis in 1981, met with Davis and informed him he would support Baliles. "There's more to it than just shaking hands," he said he told Davis.

In sum, Beyer wrote in his campaign plan, Baliles had a chance for a breakthrough in Northern Virginia but it would be "challenging." Beyer's task was to prevent Davis from making a clean sweep of the Northern Virginia delegates by finding and turning out Baliles supporters at the caucuses or mass meetings -- 10,000 of them.

The place to look was not so much among the hard-core party loyal -- the people who attended last year's mass meetings -- because the odds were they were for Davis. "If we were going to win any delegates," said Beyer, "we had to involve new people."

The Northern Virginia campaign, based in Beyer's Falls Church Volvo dealership, focused heavily on those voters who had participated in the primaries held for congressional candidates.

"It is in this group that we can win the nomination," Beyer wrote in his campaign plan.

In addition, the campaign was specifically after the people who supported Hart in the 1984 Democratic presidential campaign. Gary Brooks, a Baliles organizer, mailed a letter to those who worked with her on Hart's campaign, stressing what she saw as Baliles' similarities to Hart -- "that Jerry was a thinking, intelligent person, looking to the future, more moderate, had a better chance of winning."

Beyer emphasized from the start that a success in Northern Virginia would be expensive. The campaign allotted $130,000 to the region -- twice what Davis spent. Beyer, dissatisfied, chipped in $10,000 of his money.

The biggest cost was the mailings, more than $100,000 worth of pastel-colored giant post cards and fliers. Beyer called it "trying to drown people" with literature.

Each household identified as a potential Baliles vote received at least 15 different mailings. They were created with Northern Virginia voters in mind and established what Beyer described in his plan as "a liberal-conservative-liberal-etc." rhythm.

The first piece was on the environment and, like the one on education, it was meant "to establish Jerry as sufficiently liberal for the traditional mass-meeting Democrats." The next was economic development, "a conservative issues piece."

The mailings supplemented phone calls made by 20 paid callers and 130 volunteers. The paid staff worked five nights a week and every Saturday morning at the salespersons' desks at Beyer's dealership. The volunteers were expected to make 300 phone calls each from their homes during the three months before the meetings.

A paid campaign staff of five coordinated the effort out of the dealership's mechanics lounge. The Davis campaign, which had a staff of two full-time workers and no Northern Virginia headquarters, stepped up calls and mailings in response to the Baliles effort. But a number of voters and Democratic officials say the Baliles workers outdid them.

Pat Watt's experience was typical. Chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, Watt decided to support Baliles in the final weeks of the race partly because "his campaign was better organized."

"I got a lot of those neat post cards from Baliles," she said, but the Davis campaign was strangely silent. "I was not the recipient of any Davis mailings."

"It was the most thorough lobbying campaign I've seen on anything," said Suzanne Guy, a Red Cross employe who was deluged with literature and calls from Baliles supporters at her Reston home. "They weren't missing anything."

In early March, the Baliles campaign suddenly gained momentum. Two events helped increase his appeal among the more liberal Democrats.

First, Baliles' supporters announced an alliance with supporters of Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), a black and the party's only candidate for the nomination for lieutenant governor. The move, taken as a clear signal that Baliles had won the electability argument with influential blacks in the party, increased his support among black voters. "Up until that point, we had clearly been on the defensive," said political consultant David Doak. "It was a key thing for us in changing the momentum."

Secondly, Baliles took a more liberal position than Davis on abortion. The attorney general came out strongly in favor of abortion rights and promised to veto a proposal to restrict abortions for minors if it is reintroduced in the legislature next year.

Davis also made some moves that caused consternation in the Baliles campaign. His campaign mailed out copies of the NRA's endorsement letter with the red-ink comment: "Surprised? We're not."

Two days before the meetings, Davis ran large newspaper ads that attacked Baliles on the environment and the ERA, the issue that seemed to trouble Northern Virginians the most about Baliles. "Usually there are two sides to every issue . . . and usually, Jerry Baliles can be found on both," the ad read.

At Baliles' headquarters, "everybody was off the wall," Beyer said. "I kept saying, 'Calm down, there's no time to respond, anyway.' "

The hopes of the Baliles campaign focused increasingly on Northern Virginia. The night before the Saturday mass meetings, Darrel Martin, Baliles' campaign manager, called Beyer to tell him Baliles had to win 150 delegates in Northern Virginia instead of the previous goal of 72. On the afternoon of the meetings, Martin called back. Baliles had lost his only other chance at a breakthrough; Davis had swept Virginia Beach. Baliles needed 200 delegates in the Washington suburbs.

Beyer was in the mechanics' lounge at the dealership, frantically writing scripts for final telephone pleas to voters. By the afternoon, "It was getting pretty dicey," Beyer said. "Some people we had already called three or four times that day. We were pleading . . . . 'We know we're getting obnoxious, but we'd very much like to remind you.' "

Those who turned out reflected both the breadth of Baliles' support and the intensity of the effort. Lula Drell, a retired schoolteacher from Fairfax County, voted for Baliles because of his abortion stand and because something about Davis' face and "the set of his jaw" reminded her of "an old-line Virginia politician."

Patrick Smalldore Jr., voted for Baliles delegates because "he's younger. We need somebody with some youth."

Marguerite Thomas, a black voter from Arlington and strong Wilder supporter, voted for Baliles because she believed he was stronger "on civil rights and minorities." Barbara Banks supported Baliles because she liked what she read of his campaign literature and she had not heard from Davis. "I tend not to vote for people I know nothing about," she said.

When the count was in, Baliles met the campaign's goal for the region: He had won 207 delegates. Two days later he claimed the nomination.