Virginia Republicans begin gathering here tonight for a two-day convention that will revive one political career and decide the fate of another, one of the party's most colorful -- and controversial -- leaders.

Richmond lawyer Wyatt B. Durrette, a former Northern Virginia legislator, is unopposed as the party's nominee for governor, but J. Marshall Coleman of McLean, the gubernatorial nominee four years ago, is caught in a four-way fight for his political life.

Coleman, the brash, sometimes acerbic former state attorney general, is seeking the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor and is widely regarded as the front runner. But if he loses -- and there is a strong ABC (Anyone but Coleman) faction expected among the 9,000 convention delegates -- it could mark the end of the road for one of the party's major figures.

Durrette, who last won an election 10 years ago, faces a similar challenge in the fall. "If I lose this time, I don't expect ever to get another chance," he said.

The GOP nominees, to be picked Saturday, will face a Democratic ticket headed by State Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, the man who upset Durrette four years ago. The Democrats hold their convention in Richmond next weekend and there are no challenges for either lieutenant governor or state attorney general in the party.

The scene and mood at Norfolk's Scope convention hall this weekend will be much different. Republicans are hoping their ticket can recapture the governor's office they had controlled for 12 years until Gov. Charles S. Robb led a Democratic sweep in 1981.

"There is no feeling of pessimism," said state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell of Alexandria. "On the other hand, optimism is too strong a word.

"The average Republican delegate feels very much like a football team must feel on the eve of a big game where the odds are even up. You think you can win, you've got the candidates, but you also know you can lose. You don't want to blow it."

Coleman, 42, whose war chest of $590,000 far outstrips the other candidates, hopes to win on either the first or second ballot in a contest some party officials say may go as many as five ballots. He will direct his forces with a retinue of walkie-talkie-connected aides who have been here since Tuesday planning strategy in a suite of offices at a downtown Holiday Inn.

State Sen. John H. Chichester of Fredericksburg, 47, who is backed by many party leaders who oppose Coleman's independent style, has been considered his major challenger. Chichester, who many old-line Republicans say has the best chance to block Coleman, has been hampered recently by suggestions that the GOP may need a more substantial and exciting candidate to run with Durrette.

Richard A. Viguerie of McLean, 51, a nationally known direct-mail fundraiser for conservative causes, is seen in third place behind Chichester. A frequent critic of the Republican Party for not being conservative enough, Viguerie has spent more than $500,000 in the contest, his first state race, and last week reported debts of about $275,000. Much of his strength has come from conservative Christian support in Northern Virginia and in Hampton Roads.

Some party leaders say a possible compromise choice could be state Del. A. R. (Pete) Geisen, a 20-year veteran of the General Assembly from the Shenandoah Valley. Geisen, 52, chairman of the House-Senate Republican caucus, has placed his hopes on gaining strength if the contest goes beyond two or three ballots.

The contest is uncertain because the delegates were not required to commit their vote to any particular candidate during the party's three months of delegate selection contests.

The fifth candidate, Maurice A. Dawkins, is a 63-year-old consultant who lives in Arlington and says he is running only to draw blacks into the Republican Party. Dawkins, who has received much attention but little delegate support in the mostly white and conservative GOP, embarrassed party officials when it was disclosed this week that he has failed to register as a candidate and has not filed any of the required campaign finance reports.

The fighting over the No. 2 spot largely has obscured the triumph of Durrette, who confounded his critics and locked up the nomination several weeks ago after Rep. Stan Parris of Fairfax withdrew.

Durrette's last election victory came in 1975 when he won reelection to the legislature from Northern Fairfax County. He has publicly stayed out of the contest for the second spot despite a long enmity with Coleman, who bested him for the party's nomination for attorney general in 1977.

State Del. W. R. (Buster) O'Brien of Virginia Beach is expected to win easily the nomination for attorney general over Winston Mathews, a Charles City County attorney. Mathews has largely made his campaign a crusade against Dungeons & Dragons, a popular board game that some conservative groups say is linked to satan worship and other evils.