After weeks of circling each other like wary boxers, Virginia's candidates for governor will put on the gloves for their first television debate next Tuesday night.

That could bring a welcome flurry of direct jabs in a campaign that lately has been dominated by separate speeches and press release rhetoric.

"When two men start at each other you never can tell what's going to happen," said Ed DeBolt, the top adviser to Republican candidate Wyatt B. Durrette.

But DeBolt says one piece of advice he is giving Durrette before his public television confrontation with Democratic candidate Gerald L. Baliles is precise. Said DeBolt: "We're telling him not to get down in the gutter in a mud-throwing contest."

And given the fact that both candidates have approached the campaign with a typically Virginian degree of caution, that should rule out any improper punches. Of the six "debates" they have held since the campaign began, most actually have been "joint appearances" in which the candidates didn't face each other in a head-on confrontation.

And with a few exceptions, most of the controversies in the campaign have been little noticed by the public. Moreover, the candidates themselves appeared subdued compared with previous races.

Said DeBolt: "Both of them wear nice suits and pretty ties and both are moderate-looking people. There's no Henry Howell who's outrageous. There's no Sen. [John] Warner who's flamboyant and marries a movie star and swashbuckles around the state."

And there's no Gov. Charles S. Robb, son-in-law of the late President Johnson.

But we are only a few days past Labor Day, when campaigns typically begin to attract public attention. And although Virginia's public television stations have a limited viewing audience, it will be the candidates' first appearance before more than special interest audiences.

In preparation, Baliles will spend hours pouring through fat, black books his staff has assembled on virtually every issue of the campaign. Durrette also is being briefed and coached by his staff.

The gubernatorial candidates, as well as the nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general, have worked hard to limit the number of debates during the campaign.

"There's the commitment of time it takes to prepare and the debate itself is physically draining," Durrette said.

And there's one other problem that usually goes unspoken. "If one of us were to perform badly, it could be a real problem," Durrette noted.

Actually Robb did poorly in his one 1981 television debate with Republican J. Marshall Coleman, forgetting two of the three points he wanted to make on one topic. That apparently did little harm to his campaign -- or his image.

Both of this year's gubernatorial candidates have received more than 100 invitations for joint appearances, according to their staffs. Thus far, the campaigns have agreed to hold the number down to a dozen.

In addition to the one-hour television debate that will be sponsored by the Virginia Association of Public Television Stations from 8 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Baliles and Durrette will debate on TV again Oct. 4, Oct. 14 and Oct. 20. Tuesday's debate can be seen on public television station WNVC Channel 56 in Northern Virginia.

While the gubernatorial candidates have struggled to limit their eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations, the campaigns of the candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general have all but ruled out debates. The candidates in each race have scheduled only one debate between now and election day. The debate in each race will be aired Oct. 4 on Virginia public TV.

In the state attorney general's race between Republican Del. W.R. (Buster) O'Brien of Virginia Beach and Democratic Del. Mary Sue Terry of Patrick County, campaign officials met earlier in the summer and pointedly decided against scheduling more than one debate.

"The campaigns made a judgment," said John Jameson, a spokesman for the Terry campaign. "Each campaign felt it could get out its message in other ways."

O'Brien's campaign manager, Jeff Gregson, said their campaign has received requests for about 25 debates from groups throughout the state.

"There are other things that are more important than the theatrics of a debate," said Dennis Peterson, campaign manager for state Sen. John H. Chichester of Fredericksburg, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. "We accepted the one we think will be the best opportunity." Chichester's opponent is Democratic state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond.

Peterson said the staff will use dress rehearsals with staffers posing as reporters to prepare Chichester for the debate.

Although the candidates are attempting to play down any anxieties about the television debates, DeBolt noted they would rather make individual speeches to groups than debate on TV.

"You have to think about more things. Haircuts and things like that," said DeBolt, adding, "It has to be easier mentally to [make individual appearances] than go on TV. These men are not stars . . . . "