Of the five men actively pursuing the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, one is far and away the best known to voters.

He is the only one who has previously held a state office, is generally acknowledged to be the best speaker and has been the most successful at raising money.

J. Marshall Coleman is also the last man that some Republican leaders, such as Franklin E. Hall, want to see nominated at the party's convention in Norfolk May 31.

"I sent him a personal letter," said Hall, the 46-year-old owner of a lumber company in southeast Virginia and GOP chairman for the 4th Congressional District. "Dear Marshall: I strongly suggest you spend all of your time working in your now successful law practice."

It is this animosity from Republican stalwarts such as Hall that has left Coleman, the 42-year-old former attorney general once considered a clear favorite for the second spot on the party's ticket, struggling for his political life.

When Coleman announced in December that he would run, Ed DeBolt, a prominent GOP strategist, said that the McLean attorney and losing candidate for governor in 1981 probably could "have the nomination for lieutenant governor for the asking." Newspaper headlines throughout the state proclaimed Coleman "the instant front-runner."

Now the race is rated a tossup between Coleman and John H. Chichester, a little-known state senator whose small political home base is Fredericksburg. While Coleman is considered to be slightly ahead, GOP leaders say that anything could happen at the convention, including the defeat of both Coleman and Chichester and the emergence of a compromise candidate.

Other candidates are Richard A. Viguerie, a leading proponent of the New Right movement, Rep. A.R. (Pete) Giesen Jr. of Augusta County and lobbyist Maurice Dawkins of Springfield.

"Nobody has enough strength to win on the first ballot. It's hard to speculate who will win," said Donald R. Huffman, state party chairman.

The closeness of the race testifies to the number of Republican Party regulars who actively dislike Coleman because of what they describe as his arrogance and his tendency to assume new political personas to fit his changing political goals.

"People say he's overly ambitious, and they don't think he's sincere," said H. Ronnie Montgomery, a Roanoke lawyer who heads the party in the 9th Congressional District. "That's a big part of the reason I'm not supporting him."

Coleman's supporters say that a segment of the party has never liked him, yet that has never denied him any political opportunities.

After Coleman's loss to Charles S. Robb in the 1981 gubernatorial contest, they say, the fact that Coleman is in the lieutenant governor's race at all demonstrates the appeal of his wit, good looks, intelligence and what one supporter calls "the best one-on-one campaigning style I've ever seen."

"He's just smarter than all of them, and they resent that," said one district chairman who supports Coleman.

The anti-Coleman forces, jokingly referred to in the state as the ABC (Anyone but Coleman) Club, do not worry so much that voters will notice his flaws and turn to the Democratic candidate. As they see it, Coleman is not likely to face much scrutiny running for the largely ceremonial, part-time office.

Besides, since the Democrats decided rather reluctantly to run a black candidate for lieutenant governor, many Republicans have been counting the office as the GOP's, regardless of who they pick for a candidate.

What Coleman's critics fear is not that he might lose, but that he would win, and thus become the heir apparent for the party's gubernatorial nomination in 1989 -- a gift that they are reluctant to confer on him.

"It's certainly something that needs to be looked at," said Dudley Lewis Jr., chairman of the party's 1st Congressional District and a Chichester supporter.

"That's entirely the reason," said Coleman, referring to the nature of his opposition.

The presence of hard-core enemies within his own party never has stopped Coleman from winning nominations.

Before his loss to Robb in 1981, Coleman was moving so swiftly in his political career that his critics were left behind, sputtering in his wake.

Coleman began his climb in the state legislature, where he won a reputation for restless ambition, media savvy and a willingness to defy his elders.

After five years in the assembly, he snatched the party's nomination for attorney general from Wyatt Durrette, a party favorite and the current GOP nominee for governor, by a fraction of a vote. Republican leaders were behind Durrette in the 1977 contest, but Coleman, then a boyish-looking 35, won the hearts of the rank and file with his hard work and charisma.

He came from behind in the polls to beat the Democratic candidate, in part by bringing up his opponent's segregationist past -- a move that associates say deeply offended former governor Mills Godwin and secured Godwin's everlasting ill will.

Four years later, Coleman, the party upstart, was the obvious choice to nominate for governor. Even his most powerful detractors -- including some of the kingmakers of Virginia politics whose financial contributions can help decide whether a Democrat or Republican wins the governor's chair -- could find no Republican candidate willing to oppose him.

Coleman's use of the attorney general's office helped to build his support, while adding to the widespread perception that he is a man who is ruled by his ambition.

He launched a series of challenges to tough federal laws in such areas as strip mining, worker health and safety, and minimum wage standards for migrant workers -- all popular causes with important conservative interest groups who became major campaign contributors.

At the same time, Coleman paid increasingly less attention to such areas as consumer protection and white-collar crime, where enforcement actions could upset influential business persons.

His loss to Robb by 101,000 votes finally gave critics a chance to catch up with him. The way that Coleman had run his 1981 campaign added to their ammunition and to their ranks.

While Robb was celebrating his victory, Coleman's campaign workers quietly informed key supporters that the campaign was $700,000 in the red. It was the second largest debt in Virginia's political history, next to John W. Warner's debt when Warner ran for the U.S. Senate in 1978.

Unlike Warner's, Coleman's indebtedness was not covered by the candidate's personal loans, and he had no shining victory with which to attract contributors.

"We were shocked by the size of . . . the debt ," said Henry L. Valentine, a Richmond stockbroker and chairman of the Coleman campaign's finance committee. Although he praised Coleman's efforts to pay back the money, Valentine added: "Win, lose or draw, it was too much money."

Lawrence Lewis Jr., a Richmond investor, was forced to absorb $275,000 worth of loans that he had signed for the campaign.

In addition, a bill for $131,000 for direct-mail services by North American Marketing Corp. was not paid, according to Bill Royall, who owned part of the firm. Royall said that he blames Coleman personally, saying Coleman had agreed to pay off more of the bill than he did.

Coleman insists that he fufilled the agreement.

"Royall told me . . . he would never raise a question about it," Coleman said last week.

Some smaller creditors also were left in a lurch, with bills ranging from $1,000 to nearly $20,000.

To J. Smith Ferebee, a millionaire investor who contributed heavily to Coleman's 1981 campaign and now supports Chichester, the debt showed that Coleman "is young and ambitious and wants to get ahead, and is going to try to do it at all costs."

To Coleman and his supporters, the debt is a false issue that shows how hard his critics are grasping for ways to assail him.

"I stepped forward and worked very hard for the next three years to get the debt paid off, and every one of them told me they were paid off to their absolute satisfaction at the time," Coleman said. "It wasn't until we got to election time that some people began complaining about it."

In the face of his emboldened critics, Coleman decided in December to "step aside" as a candidate for the gubernatorial nomination and seek the lieutenant governor's spot.

"It's a first step of trying to heal old wounds," said Richard Cullen, a prominent Republican who has remained neutral in the race.

To mount his challenge, Coleman is relying on a new source of campaign contributions from developers and other clients of the Washington law firm that made him a partner after his 1981 defeat. According to staff, contributions to his campaign now total $500,000, more than twice what Chichester has raised.

To the delight of his supporters, Coleman has returned to his old, successful campaigning style, described by Del. James H. Dillard (R-Fairfax) as "Marshall Coleman joking around in plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up." In his 1981 race, on the advice of political consultants he had adopted a stiff and somber image as the keeper of the status quo, which Dillard and others found "appalling."

"This is the still somewhat young, old Marshall Coleman," said Coleman, grinning over a cup of coffee in a Fairfax restaurant last week.

The convention will show whether he can pull off an old Marshall Coleman trick of an end run on party leaders to line up the little people of the party.

Cullen, for one, will not speculate about the results, except to say that Coleman is at his best "as an outsider trying to get in."